This sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? For only $1.03 plus shipping, you could try a new product that promises “visibly whiter teeth.”
Teeth-whitening products have soared in popularity in recent years, and anything that promises to deliver a brighter smile is bound to get attention. But many consumers who signed up for one particular “trial” offer found themselves on the hook for hundreds of dollars per month until they were finally able to cancel their subscriptions.
The Federal Trade Commission last week got a federal court to put the brakes on a wide-ranging scheme involving 78 companies, at least 87 different websites and dozens of bank accounts. The agency accuses the operators of the plans with “using deceptive claims, hidden fine-print disclosures and confusing terms” to lure customers into providing billing information, and began charging them about $100 a month if they didn’t cancel within eight days. In addition, they allegedly used an “order confirmation page” to trick customers into signing up for a second subscription, leading some customers to pay more than $200 a month until cancelling.
Now, any reasonably-intelligent person would know there’s always a catch to an offer that starts out costing so little. Many of us remember the “buy a record for a penny, get 10 more free” plans that became common in the 1980s (and which still exist today). For a ridiculously small, up-front payment, you could get 11 albums for “free.” But if you signed up for this offer, you found yourself getting a shipment every few weeks, for which you had to pay full price, until you cancelled. (Of course, the terms of most of these offers were pretty clearly stated, even if you had to look at the fine print, and even if you had to wait on the phone awhile, you usually could cancel.)
This type of operation (legitimate or scam) relies on what’s known as the “negative option.” If you sign up for the offer, you’re obligated until you cancel. If they don’t hear from you, the assumption is that you are agreeing to continue the service. (If that’s what you want, it’s not a problem.) In reality, most recurring services are provided on a negative-option basis. But what distinguishes a scam from a legitimate offer is that scammers go out of their way to make it difficult for you to cancel, or trick you into more obligations.
Negative-option subscription plans (and their cousins, automatic-renewal contracts) are more common today than ever, and companies find them attractive because they don’t have to go to the expense of trying to get customers to renew. It takes a lot of expense and trouble to lure new customers or to try to persuade existing ones to renew their commitment.
But the problem for consumers is that, even if they try to cancel, it can be difficult. You’ve probably notice that most subscription services (there are some notable exceptions, such as Netflix) don’t readily supply you with an easy way to cancel, and make you call and explain why you’re trying to cancel.
For negative-option or auto-renewing contracts associated with subscription offers, the FTC requires the following information be provided clearly and conspicuously, and these are good questions to ask before you sign up for any subscription service or trial offer:
- What is the minimum purchase requirement, if any?
- How and when can I cancel my membership?
- How many notifications will I have to respond to, and how often will you receive them?
- How do I reject merchandise, and who pays for returns?
- How much time do you have to reject merchandise?
- Is postage and handling included in the product price?
Finally, it’s a good idea to keep copies or information for all transactions and conversations you have with the company or its representatives, and keep track of any dates required to cancel services. While a free trial should give you the chance to try something you might (or might not) end up wanting, it shouldn’t be a ticket to a customer-service nightmare.
For more info on buying plans and negative-option agreements, visit http://bit.ly/2fpP14s.