Free offers often come at a high cost
John Hearne warns of the pitfalls involved in signing up for free trials online — from buried get-out clauses to costly subscription traps
DID you sign up for a free trial and suddenly find yourself locked into a monthly contract for a product or a service you don’t actually want? You’re in a subscription trap, and it’s not always that easy to climb out.
Typically, these products are pharmaceuticals, antiaging products, health foods and diet pills. To claim the offer, you enter your credit card details. If it’s ‘free’, they’ll tell you they need your details to verify your age. Often however, there’s a nominal fee for shipping that has to be taken care of.
While the front page of the site you visit will be all glitz and glamour, the bad news is hidden in the small print. Down there, buried in reams of legal prose, it will say that by ticking the box, you are signing up to a subscription service, with a regular monthly cost of God-knowswhat.
Those same terms and conditions may specify that you have a certain timeframe to cancel if you change your mind, but again, that get-out clause will be buried in the small print.
The European Consumer Centre (ECC Ireland) says many of the free trial complaints they receive involve pop-up ads, or adverts on social media. Some unlucky consumers have been hit with charges of up to €400 for these products, and in other cases, the supposedly free product didn’t arrive until the free trial period had already expired.
ECC Ireland advises you to always make sure you know who you’re dealing with online. If there’s no address in the ‘contact us’ tab, or there’s just a form to fill in, listen to those alarm bells.
A few years ago, a UK games retailer announced that it owned the immortal souls of thousands of customers who had ticked the box saying ‘I have read the terms and conditions’ without reading them at all.
As an April Fool’s Day joke, the company had inserted a clause giving them ‘a non transferable option to claim, for now and forever more, your immortal soul’. The point they were trying to make is that we never read the terms of service. We just tick the box and move on.
Most of the time that works out OK. But with a free trial offer, particularly if you’re handing over your card details, you do need to take the time to read the terms and conditions and find out exactly what it is you’re signing up for.
It’s vital to know what happens after the trial period ends. Consumers are often required to contact traders and inform them in writing that they wish to cancel. Otherwise, the free trial period may automatically rollover to a subscription where you pay a monthly fee.
If large sums of money have been charged to your card, then you should contact the trader in writing immediately and indicate that you wish to cancel the contract.
It’s also a good idea to use a secure method of payment like a bank/credit card just in case things go wrong, because at least then you may have the option of talking to your bank/credit card provider. They may be able to cancel an unauthorised transaction or invoke a chargeback, which is when a card transaction is reversed.
On the subject of subscription traps, you may also find similar pitfalls with dating sites. Every year, ECC Ireland receives a range of complaints from consumers who’ve signed up, then realise a few months later that they’ve inadvertently locked themselves into a year’s subscription.
Here again, it’s down to not knowing the terms and conditions. There might be a free trial period, or one in which a reduced rate applies, but in many cases, when that period ends, an automatic renewal kicks in. To stop that from happening, you’ve got to opt out before the trial period ends.
Again, double check the Ts and Cs before you sign up to anything. As with free trials, many dating website memberships have an opt-out system for subscription cancellation. If you forget to do this in time, you’ll then find yourself trapped into a rolling contract.
The renewal process should be clearly outlined in those terms and conditions. Assuming it is, and you’ve freely signed up, you’re going to find it difficult to get out of the contract afterwards.
When you shop online, the general rule is you have the right to a cooling-off period of 14 days where you can withdraw from the contract without having to specify a reason. There are exceptions, however. If you’ve already had access to dating profiles and can contact them, this means that the service contract has been ‘fully performed’.
ECC Ireland also points out that you also lose the right to withdraw from the contract ‘if you’ve already started using the service after giving your express consent with the knowledge that you’ll lose the right to withdraw.’
The good news in all of this is that the credit card companies have started to implement rule changes which will make it a little harder for subscription trappers to succeed. Both Visa and MasterCard now require merchants to gain cardholder approval at the conclusion of the free trial period before they start billing.
According to MasterCard: “To help cardholders with that decision, merchants will be required to send the cardholder — either by email or text — the transaction amount, payment date, merchant name, along with explicit instructions on how to cancel a trial.”
If your membership is up for renewal and you want to cancel, follow the instructions in the website’s terms and conditions. Usually, it’s best to contact the trader in writing as soon as possible and let them know that you wish to end the subscription well in advance of the renewal date. Keep copies of all correspondence or take screenshots as proof of cancellation request.
Avoid subscription traps
Beware of flashy adverts, particularly pop-ups on social media. Don’t commit to anything without reading the full terms and conditions. Know exactly who you’re signing up with. If you can’t find a physical address, a telephone number and an email address, there’s something wrong.
Ask the company if you can pay a subscription using a direct debit. Unlike a recurring charge, you can cancel a direct debit directly with your bank.
If you’re given a limited time to cancel the agreement, do it before the specified date. You could set a reminder in your phone to unsubscribe when the free period ends.
Never give bank details to a company without researching them first. Do an online search to see if there are any negative reviews. Don’t sign up if you have any doubts at all.
If signing up for a trial, make sure you know what happens after the trial period ends. In many cases, you have to take action to cancel the subscription. Otherwise, the free trial period rolls over automatically to a monthly paid service.
Check bank/payment card statements regularly for unexpected payments.
If signing up for a free trial offer online, especially if you’re handing over your card details, take the time to read the terms and conditions and find out exactly what it is you’re signing up for.