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

Irish Examiner - - Money & Jobs -

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.

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