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Amazon Misled Customers Into Prime Subscriptions, FTC Says

The agency accuses the company of charging users for service without permission and making it hard to cancel

spinner image The FTC has filed a complaint against Amazon for coercive practices in enrolling customers in Amazon Prime.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

It’s awfully easy to sign up for Amazon Prime with a free 30-day trial: Just click a link, sign in or register and add your credit card info, if you haven’t done so already. But millions of people subscribed to the $139-a-year service without realizing they’d done so, according to a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The company “used manipulative, coercive, or deceptive user-interface designs known as ‘dark patterns’ ” to get consumers to enroll in automatically renewing Prime subscriptions, alleges the complaint filed June 21 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington (Amazon is based in Seattle).

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It notes that during the checkout process, for example, the button presented to consumers to complete their transaction sometimes didn’t make it clear that clicking that option meant they were agreeing to sign up for Prime. Such practices are “not only frustrating” for users, they “also [cost] them significant money,” FTC Chair Lina M. Khan said in a press statement.

The FTC says Amazon “knowingly” makes it difficult for customers to cancel their subscriptions to Prime, which has about 168 million members in the U.S., according to a 2022 Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) report. (The FTC has taken aim at other businesses, including magazines and streaming services, that make it difficult to cancel unwanted plans.)

Amazon, which reported first-quarter sales of $127.4 billion (with a net income of $3.2 billion), has long been accused of such deceptions. In 2019, the British ad industry’s Advertising Standards Authority ruled that an Amazon promo for Prime was “likely to mislead.” It argued that consumers checking out on the site had the option to click on a big gold button to both order and sign up for a free 30-day Prime trial, and a gray box promising “free one-day delivery” and that Amazon didn’t make it clear that clicking on the gray box would also include their signing up for Prime. The checkout process had a far less prominent “continue and don’t gain Amazon Prime benefits” link, the authority said. 

Others have noted that it’s tough to cancel Prime subscriptions, including the Norwegian Consumer Council, which filed a legal complaint against the company about its labyrinthine cancellation process in 2021. 

The difficulty with canceling was quite intentional, the FTC notes in the complaint, which describes how Amazon code-named the multistep cancellation process “Iliad Flow,” a reference to the epic Greek poem about the “long, arduous Trojan War.” The agency alleges that Amazon and its leadership “slowed or rejected user experience changes that would have made Iliad simpler for consumers because those changes adversely affected Amazon’s bottom line.”

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But, according to the FTC, Amazon simplified its cancellation process “for at least some subscribers” when it found out the FTC was investigating.

AARP reached out to Amazon for comment, but at time of publication had not heard back.  

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The FTC issued a consumer alert on the issue, with advice on how to avoid unwanted services and charges when you shop anywhere online. It includes:

  • Watch what goes into your cart. Even if you empty it and leave the site without completing your purchase, you still could have been enrolled in a subscription service.
  • Watch for pre-checked boxes. They may sign you up for a product or service.
  • Make sure you didn’t get charged for something you don’t want. Check your order confirmation to see. If you did get charged, contact the company to cancel and get a refund. Get and keep the written confirmation.
  • Watch your bank or credit card statements. If you’ve tried to cancel a subscription and the company won’t stop charging your account, dispute it with your credit or debit card issuer.
  • Look for auto-renewals. Unless you cancel, you’ll continue to be charged.

If a company signed you up for a subscription service without your permission or if you have problems with canceling a subscription service, tell the FTC at

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.