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11 Tips to Manage and Avoid Unwanted Subscriptions

The FTC's new guidelines promise to make it easier to cancel subscriptions

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You’ve been seduced with free trial offers and goaded into subscriptions for everything from dietary supplements and gym memberships to magazines and video streaming services.

Now you’re trying to trim your expenses or get out from under those too-good-to-be-true deals.  

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Visiting many businesses to cancel in person is nearly impossible, and you reckon hell will freeze over before you reach a live customer service representative on the phone. In the meantime, recurring charges keep piling up for products and services you don’t even remember agreeing to pay for.

To make matters worse, the last line from the Eagles’ “Hotel California” is playing in your head: “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

More transparency is ahead  

The FTC wants to make it just as easy for you to bail on these subscriptions as it was for you to sign up for them. On March 23, by a vote of 3 to 1, the agency proposed “click to cancel” rules that it claims will go a long way toward rescuing consumers from the never-ending struggle to cancel unwanted subscription plans.

Marketers often fail to make adequate disclosures to consumers about their payment obligations and bill them repeatedly without their consent, the FTC says. The agency receives thousands of consumer complaints about these practices each year.

The new rules “would save consumers time and money, and businesses that continued to use subscription tricks and traps would be subject to stiff penalties,” FTC chairwoman Lina M. Khan said in her statement.  

The FTC isn’t the only government agency trying to bring more transparency to consumer pricing. A day before the FTC announcement, chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel of the Federal Communications Commission unveiled a customer protection proposal that would require cable operators and direct broadcast satellite providers to specify their all-in price “clearly and prominently” for video services that show up in promotional materials and on subscribers’ bills.

“Consumers deserve to know what exactly they are paying for when they sign up for a cable or broadcast satellite subscription. No one likes surprises on their bill, especially families on tight budgets,” Rosenworcel said in her statement.

Negative option rules under scrutiny

One key component under the proposed FTC rules: Businesses that let you sign up for a subscription through a website must afford you the opportunity to cancel that subscription on the same website with the same number of steps.  

The agency’s latest proposals seek to amend negative option rules enacted in 1973. Negative option plans refer to situations where customers are presumed to continue to accept the terms of an offer or agreement until they take affirmative steps to decline it, the FTC says.  

The proposed rules will allow sellers to try to upsell consumers looking to cancel their enrollment. But sellers will be required to ask consumers if they’re willing to hear such promotional pitches.

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If not, the seller must accept a “No” without pressing again. Companies also will be required to send annual reminders to customers before automatically renewing a service for anything other than physical goods.

Subscriptions deluge consumers

Subscription overload is a problem for many consumers, who generally don’t have a good fix on just how much money they’re shelling out.

Consumers surveyed by C+R Research in 2022 estimated they spent $86 a month on subscription services. In reality, they spent $219 a month. One in 5 surveyed reported feeling overwhelmed because they had so many subscriptions.  

Moreover, 74 percent of respondents said forgetting about recurring charges is too easy. More than 40 percent reported still paying for a monthly subscription they no longer use, including a quarter of baby boomers.    

The FTC will soon let the public weigh in on its proposed rules at Regulations.gov. Ahead of any changes, here are some tips to lessen the likelihood you’ll get tangled in a subscription or membership mess.

Do this before you buy

1. Read the terms and conditions. In short, know what you’re signing up for. How long is any trial period? What’s the procedure for canceling once that period expires? If cancellation and return policies appear to be too rigid, don’t buy.

2. Do your research. What are other people saying about the company selling or pitching the product? Read user reviews. The FTC recommends searching for the company’s name with the words “scam” or “complain” to see if anything worrisome surfaces.  

3. Consider how to cancel future shipments or services. Make sure you can opt out of or cut down on shipments of future products you don’t need. Will you have enough time to halt shipments?  

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4. Be wary of pre-checked boxes. By default, companies may check boxes that grant them permission to charge you past a free trial date or that sign you up for other products. Uncheck boxes at odds with what you have in mind.

Watch for this after you’ve said ‘Yes’

5. Mark your calendars. Make note of important deadlines and due dates to give yourself ample time to cancel. Use your email, reminders or calendar app to set reminders for each of your purchases, especially ones that might renew annually.

6. Monitor your credit and debit card statements. Be on the lookout for charges you may not be aware of or have unwittingly authorized. Does the price seem right? As the FTC spells out, “If you have to pay for shipping fees to get your ‘free’ trial, it’s not really free.” 

7. Demand auto-renewal notices. Even if you appreciate the convenience of having a service you like automatically renewed, you’ll want to receive notices when your subscription is about to lapse.

Don’t respond to any renewal notice that requests credit card information, the FTC warns. It could be for a product you’ve already canceled or a scammer looking to steal your info.

8. Has the price gone up? You may have signed on at a promotional rate. Make sure you’re OK with any price increases.

How to quit your peskiest purchases  

9. Contact your credit or debit card issuer. If you’re unable to stop renewal of a product or service directly from the seller, write a letter and/or file a dispute claim with your credit card company. Save any emails, letters, notes or other records that document your desire to cancel.

10. Consider stand-alone services that help manage recurring charges. Third-party subscription tracker apps and web services can help you track expenses and control recurring charges. While some of these apps are free, you may have to accept ads or pay a monthly or yearly fee to monitor more than a limited number of subscriptions.

11. Report fraud to the government. Contact the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov or reach out to your state attorney general

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