Getting In and Out of Free Trials, Auto-Renewals, and Negative Option Subscriptions
You’ve probably seen ads online, on TV, or on social media for subscription offers. They could be for anything from beauty creams and dietary supplements to snacks and magazines. Some say you can try the subscription for free, but it might not be true. Some will auto-renew if you don’t cancel first, but you may not know that. Sometimes you’re signed up for a subscription without even knowing it. Learn the ins and outs of subscriptions to save yourself money, time, and aggravation.
Free Trial Offers Can Cost You
Many subscription offers are tempting, especially if they offer a free trial period before you commit. But free trial offers can be tricky, and there’s often a catch.
Here are three things to know about free trial offers:
1. If you don’t cancel on time, you’ll be charged. Usually, you have to give your credit card number for a “free trial.” That way, the company can charge you if you don’t cancel before the trial period ends. Dishonest businesses make it tough to cancel, and will keep charging you — even if you don’t want the product or subscription anymore.
Tip: Make sure you’re clear on the terms of the trial period. If you sign up, make a note on your calendar to remind you to cancel. If you can’t cancel, call your credit card company and ask them to stop the payments.
2. If you have to pay for shipping or fees to get your “free” trial, it’s not really free. The offer may say you can try a product free — but you have to pay a small fee for shipping costs or something else. You may think those few dollars are no big deal, but after the trial ends, you might see higher charges than expected on your credit card — or charges for products you didn’t want or order.
Tip: Free means free. Be suspicious of companies that offer something free but say you have to pay to get it. You may be dealing with a scammer.
3. That online ad you saw may not be from the company selling the product. Companies hire affiliate marketers to promote a product and create many ads you see online for free trials. Affiliate marketers get paid every time you click on their ad. Some dishonest affiliate marketers put out ads with exaggerated claims or misleading information to get you to click.
Tip: Remember that some ads may be designed to make you click, not tell you the truth about the offer. So think before you click on that online free trial offer.
Before you sign up for a free trial offer
Find the terms and conditions for the offer. The terms and conditions should tell you
- exactly what you’re agreeing to the length of the trial period
- how and when to cancel if you don’t want to continue with a full subscription after the trial period
- If you can't find this information or can't understand exactly what you're agreeing to, don't sign up. Sometimes, return and cancellation policies on free trial offers are so strict that it can be almost impossible to do.
Research the company online. See what other people are saying about the company's free trial offers, but make sure to compare online reviews from a wide variety of websites. User reviews can give you a good idea about the offer you’re considering. Search for the company’s name with the words “scam” or “complaint.” Complaints from other customers can tip you off to "catches" that might come with the trial.
Look for information on how you can cancel future shipments or services. If you don't want the product or service anymore, how do you cancel? Is that process clear to you? Can you skip shipments if you don’t want to fully cancel, but don’t need the shipment or service as often? Do you have a limited time to respond?
Watch out for pre-checked boxes. If you sign up for a free trial online, look for boxes that are already checked for you. That checkmark may give the company permission to continue charging you past the free trial, sign you up for more products that you have to pay for, or share your information with others. Make sure to uncheck a box if you don’t agree with what it says.
After you sign up for a free trial
Mark your calendar. Your free trial offer has a time limit. Once the deadline to cancel passes, you may be on the hook for more products or services and more payments.
Monitor your credit and debit card statements. That way you'll know right away if you're being charged for something you didn't order. See the section How To Stop a Subscription for more on how to dispute a charge you didn’t authorize.
Advice on Auto-Renewals
If you’re happy with a subscription and want to continue with it, auto-renewals can be convenient. On the subscription’s expiration day, your credit or debit card gets charged, and the subscription is automatically renewed for another term.
Here are three things to keep in mind about auto-renewals:
1. Before a company can auto-renew your subscription, it has to send you a renewal notice. This isn’t a bill or an invoice, so it shouldn’t ask for your credit card information. A renewal notice is simply a reminder about when your subscription expires and that you’ll be automatically charged when it does.
Tip: If you get a renewal notice that asks for your credit card information, stop. Read the notice carefully. The company may be trying to get you to renew an old subscription that you canceled. Or it could be a scammer lying about the renewal notice to get your credit card information.
2. Check that the cost is what you expected. Sometimes when the renewal automatically happens, you’re charged more than you were last time. This can happen if you initially had a promotional rate. When you get your renewal notice, read it closely to confirm that the rate you’re getting is what you expected. If it isn’t, or if the notice doesn’t say how much you’ll pay, call the company right away. See if they can lower the rate or cancel your subscription, if that’s what you want.
Tip: Sometimes you can cancel a subscription and re-subscribe for a better promotional rate. Just make sure that you know exactly when that promotional period ends, and mark it on your calendar. Also be clear when and how much you’ll be charged when the promotion ends.
3. Scammers sometimes send fake renewal notices to get your financial information. If you get a renewal notice for a subscription you don’t have, it’s probably from a scammer or a dishonest company trying to get you to give them your credit card number or other personal information. Don’t call the number on the notice or click on any email or text message link.
Tip: Search online for the company name with the words “scam” or “complaint” to see if other people got the same fake renewal notice. If it’s a company you do business with, contact the company at a number you know is correct to see if the renewal notice is real. Otherwise, just ignore it.
Negative Options Explained
A negative option is when you’re automatically billed for something when you didn’t specifically say not to bill you. It’s a common practice that businesses use, and it often happens with free trial offers and subscriptions.
For example, you agree to try a box of products free for a month. After that month, you’re charged automatically for monthly shipments until you cancel. Or you get a magazine subscription that renews automatically when it expires. Those are negative options. Your silence is taken as consent to be charged.
The problem with negative options comes when the business doesn’t clearly explain that it will keep billing you unless you do something — or if the business makes it difficult or impossible for you to cancel.
Before you give your credit card to a free trial offer or subscription
- Read all the details. See if the business will keep charging you unless you tell them to stop. If that’s not clear to you, assume it will. Why else would the business want your credit card?
- Look for pre-checked boxes. Some businesses use these hoping you won’t notice that you’re agreeing to be billed later. Uncheck the box if you don’t agree with what it says.
- Make sure you know how to cancel. Check the business’s website for an explanation on how to cancel. Businesses should make this easy for you. It’s the law. If it’s not clear to you how to cancel, walk away.
If you’re charged without your consent, and the company won’t refund your money, dispute the charge (also called a “chargeback”) with your credit or debit card company right away.
How To Stop a Subscription
If you want to stop a subscription you’re enrolled in:
First, contact the company that runs the subscription you want to cancel. If the company has instructions on how to cancel, follow those. Keep a copy of your cancellation request, along with notes about any conversations you had and how and when you canceled.
Watch your bank or credit card statements. Check for charges on your debit or credit card after you canceled the subscription. If a company won’t stop charging your account after you’ve tried to cancel a subscription, file a dispute (also called a “chargeback”) with your credit or debit card.
- Online: Log onto your credit or debit card online account and go through the dispute process. If you haven’t set up an account with your credit or debit card company, check out the company’s website to find out how to file a dispute.
- By phone: Call the phone number on the back of your card, and tell the company why you’re filing a dispute.
Follow up with a letter to your credit or debit card company. To protect any rights you may have, follow up in writing by sending a letter to the address listed for billing disputes or errors. Use our sample letter. It’s a good idea to send your letter by certified mail and ask for a return receipt so you have proof of what the creditor received.
Save your records. Keep any letters, notes, or emails related to the scam — they could help prove you’re entitled to a refund if the credit or debit card company has any questions.
Find more about your rights at ftc.gov/credit.
If you have problems canceling a subscription, or you’ve been charged for a subscription you didn’t agree to, report it to:
- the FTC at reportfraud.ftc.gov
- your state attorney general