The Subscription Trap

How to Avoid Getting Hooked

You'd think that not joining a club would be the easiest thing in the world. But at many sites, consumers regularly get sucked into signing up for discount shopping clubs that they have no interest in joining. Here's what to look out for:

* When you see words such as "free," "cash back," and "rebate" on a Web site, alarm bells should ring in your head--no matter how credible the site. Take a deep breath before clicking to take advantage of any such deal, and read all of the terms and conditions carefully. Too often, accepting a "cash back" offer turns into a costly mistake.

* If the terms and conditions are confusing, the company may have buried something in them that it doesn't want you to find. Skip it!

* When completing a purchase online, look for prechecked boxes that may bind you to terms and conditions you don't want. Uncheck those boxes.

* Don't shop online with your bank debit card. Credit card companies such as American Express, MasterCard, and Visa are protected under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act. When you dispute a charge on your credit card, you can ask your credit card company to withhold payment while it investigates. You don't have the same protections with a debit card purchase.

How to Quit a Club You Never Meant to Join (and Get Your Money Back)

Hundreds of big-name Web sites offer shoppers discounts or free shipping if they'll join a discount club that charges a monthly membership fee. Joining these clubs is so easy that many people don't even know they've done it. Getting out of the club--and getting your money back--is the hard part.

Here are the most effective steps to take to get your money back from what are known as posttransaction marketers.

1. Call the billing company. First contact the company that is directly billing you--not the Web site that presented the original offer. Be polite, ask to cancel your membership and demand your money back. If the representative refuses to refund your money or claims to be unable to, ask to talk with a manager. Note the date and time of your call and the names of all the service representatives you speak with. Getting nowhere? Inform the company you are going to dispute the charge with your credit card company.

2. Call your credit card company. American Express, MasterCard, and Visa offer their credit card customers fraud protection and will investigate claims of bogus billing. Lodge a formal claim with your credit card company, explaining that a posttransaction marketer billed you for a service that you mistakenly signed up for or were not aware you had requested. Emphasize that you've tried to get your money back from the billing company with no success.

Thanks to a high-profile Senate Commerce Committee investigation, companies that engage in posttransaction marketing are currently under a microscope, and credit card companies say that they are willing to investigate and reverse these charges.

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