Online subscriptions of all kinds have been mushrooming in recent years. While signing up is easy, managing and cutting them back is difficult, even for savvy consumers.
Clark Howard, a longtime cost-cutting guru from Atlanta, recently realized he was paying for a streaming service even though his household received the service free from the home’s internet provider, he said.
He sent out a group text — “Who signed up for this?” — and learned that one of his children had. He was able to cancel the extra subscription online, he said. But the experience illustrates how complex it has become to track the myriad services that consumers can obtain with a few clicks, charged automatically to a credit card.
“It can be so many different kinds of things,” Mr. Howard said. Video entertainment and online games, computer software, meal-preparation kits, weight-loss apps and clothing are just a few items available by subscription. People may lose track, he said, of all they are paying for.
Government watchdogs, however, are increasingly keeping track of how companies treat customers trying to stop subscriptions. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission sued Amazon, arguing that the big online retailer tricked people into signing up for its Prime program, which includes benefits like fast delivery and streaming, and made it hard for them to cancel.
“The primary purpose of its Prime cancellation process was not to enable subscribers to cancel, but to stop them,” the agency said in a news release.
Amazon said in an emailed statement that the F.T.C.’s claims were “false on the facts and the law,” adding that “by design we make it clear and simple for customers to both sign up for or cancel their Prime membership.”
The F.T.C. is also proposing rules that would require companies to make it “at least as easy” to cancel a subscription as it was to start it. If, for instance, you can sign up online, you must be able to cancel on the same website, in the same number of steps.
The new rules, which are being completed, are expected to take effect next spring or summer, said James A. Kohm, associate director of the enforcement division at the F.T.C.’s consumer protection bureau. “Help is on the way,” Mr. Kohm said.
Many people and groups have filed online comments about the proposed rules. A man in Eugene, Ore., wrote that to cancel TextNow, an app offering messaging and calling services, he ultimately had to persuade his credit union to cut off monthly withdrawals from his account. And a subscriber to MyHeritage, a family genealogy site, said he had “tried in vain” to stop the company from automatically billing his credit card. TextNow and MyHeritage did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At issue is the use of “negative option” plans, which presume that consumers accept an offer unless they affirmatively decline it — like a free trial that continues as a paying subscription.
Companies prefer automatically renewing subscriptions because they don’t have to keep aggressively marketing their product, said John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud with the National Consumers League.
Some people, of course, like free trials and automatic renewals. Even the F.T.C., in its proposal, conceded that such options could have “substantial benefits” for consumers. But increasingly, the F.T.C. said, companies use “dark patterns” that can make it difficult to stop a service. Such tools can include requiring customers to click through multiple screens or making the online “cancel” button dim but using a bright color for “continue.”
C+R Research found in a May 2022 survey that on average, consumers initially estimated they spent $86 per month on subscription services. But after examining their expenses more closely, they saw they actually spent $219.
Mr. Howard urged consumers to research new services and their cancellation policies before enrolling by going outside the service’s website and searching generally for its cancellation policy and any complaints.
“You have to look at how you get divorced before you get married,” he said.
The F.T.C. advises consumers to put a calendar reminder in their phones when they sign up for a free trial so they will be alerted when it is time to cancel. Not everyone will do that, however, so Mr. Breyault said his group was urging the F.T.C. to require companies to notify customers before each recurring charge, and to remind them that they can cancel if they choose.
Would constant email or text reminders get annoying? Perhaps, Mr. Breyault said. “But it’s more annoying to keep getting charged for subscriptions you no longer use.”
The F.T.C. is proposing an annual reminder for anything other than subscriptions involving the delivery of physical goods. (The idea is that getting stuff delivered to your door is a sufficient prompt.)
The F.T.C.’s proposal would also give consumers the option of hearing alternative, money-saving pitches before canceling a service. (Mr. Kohm of the F.T.C. said he had used such an offer himself. When canceling a radio subscription, he said, he was offered a much lower rate to continue and accepted it.)
But the changes are aimed at avoiding situations like the one described in a letter to the F.T.C. by two dozen attorneys general, in which a customer tried to cancel a subscription using a company’s online chat feature. The company representative repeatedly urged him to reconsider, ignoring the man’s steadfast request to cancel, keeping him online for about 40 minutes.
Here are some questions and answers about managing and canceling subscriptions:
How can I best keep track of my subscriptions?
“It requires a mental reset,” Mr. Howard said. He recommends that once every three months — say, when the seasons change — you look through your checking and credit card statements and review recurring charges to “see all the things we didn’t remember we have.”
If there’s something you no longer use, cancel it. He concedes that isn’t always easy, particularly with some cable companies and many gym memberships. You may have to call the cable company, he said, where you may be transferred to a “retention” specialist who may offer some sort of temporary discount to keep you. With gyms, you may have to visit a location.
Should I use a subscription tracking app?
There are now many apps that will scour your bank account or credit card statements for recurring payments, and may even offer to cancel subscriptions for you. But the apps require you to share your account information and, in some cases, may charge a fee.
In their letter to the F.T.C., the attorneys general took a dim view of such apps. “We believe that consumers should not have to sign up for yet another service” to manage their subscriptions, they wrote.
What else can I do to avoid unwanted subscription costs?
The F.T.C. advises that consumers watch for prechecked boxes when making a purchase online. Those boxes may sign you up for a product or service you don’t want, unless you uncheck them. If you cancel a subscription but are still being charged, the commission recommends disputing it with your credit card company. You can also file complaints on the F.T.C.’s website.