How 'free trial' web offers can be credit card traps

The Truth About Free Trials
Illustration by Adam McCauley
The offer was tempting: I could read exclusive online articles about my beloved Red Sox on ESPN Insider, for just $44.95 a year. And to be sure that it would be money well spent, I could sign up for a seven-day free trial. I bit, coughing up my credit card number as part of the deal.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get off the hook.

Finding Red Sox slugger David Ortiz’s career RBI totals took seconds on ESPN, but trying to learn how to cancel the free ESPN Insider trial was considerably harder. I searched, clicked, and navigated to what felt like every corner of the site, to no avail. Before giving up I sent ESPN customer service a terse email message requesting that my account be canceled. The next day, the day that my free trial expired, my credit card was charged $44.95.

Later I called customer service, and a cheerful woman named Yvonne told me, “There is no way to cancel online; you have to call to cancel.” Why couldn’t I find that out online?

After refusing to refund me 100 percent of my $44.95, she transferred me to a supervisor who reiterated the refund policy and then explained how to find the cancellation policy on ESPN.com. I had tried to unearth a cancellation form by clicking the ‘My Account’ link, but instead I was supposed to go to ‘Radio and More’ to see the cancellation policy. Who knew?

Free trials are enticing, but as I learned, they come with strings attached. Back in April, in order to test how consumer-friendly free trials are, I signed up for and attempted to quit 40 free trials that required a credit card number. More than a quarter of the services I tried turned out to be a real hassle to quit.

Three of the sites charged me even though I canceled be­­fore the free trial ended. With two other sites, I wound up with a bill simply because I couldn’t figure out how to cancel before the trial expired; I blame this problem on poor website design (in both cases representatives later showed me that it was possible to cancel online). And one site provided no way to quit the free trial—online or offline—so I simply gave up.

The news isn’t all bad. Free trials from Hulu and Merriam-Webster, for instance, were a breeze to ditch. Hulu stood out because it offered to “remove all [my] personal information from Hulu.” At Merriam-Webster’s site, saying good-bye took three clicks and less than a minute. (For more about the positive experiences I had, see “Free Trials We Liked.”)

The biggest hassles

In the chart here (click to view it full size), you can see the 12 services that proved to be the most aggravating when I attempted to quit.

These companies failed on several levels: A few charged me despite my having canceled in time. Nearly all of them made finding cancellation instructions extremely difficult, requiring me to perform extensive sleuthing. Many of them forced me to call the company to complete the cancellation, and threw up technical roadblocks such as nonworking phone numbers and broken links to cancellation pages. Among the somewhat less annoying practices I encountered were high-pressure sales pitches from some companies to make me keep the service, extensive exit interviews, and multiple marketing messages in my inbox even after we had parted ways.

On the other hand, the free trials that were best made it simple to end the trial, providing clear navigation, sparing me the aggressive customer-retention lectures and marketing pitches, and saying thanks for giving them a try.

In all fairness, the hassles I describe here are a matter of subjective opinion. Another person might find spending 10 minutes on the phone tolerable; for me it was highly irritating.

Free trials and tribulations

Days after canceling J2 Global’s 30-day free trial of the TrustFax virtual fax service, I spotted an $8.95 charge from the company on my credit card statement. Perplexed, I tried calling TrustFax’s toll-free number to dispute the charge. All I got was a voicemail message: “You have reached Verizon conferencing. The number you have dialed is not in use.”

The next day I checked the TrustFax site and found that the customer service number had changed. I dialed the new number; within 20 seconds after navigating voice prompts, I was hearing hold music and a looped message saying, “Your call is very important to us. Please wait on the line for the next available representative.” After 12 minutes, I hung up.

As a test, the next time I called TrustFax, I selected the sales option at the voice prompts, and within 10 seconds a cheerful sales representative was ready to take my order—but not to cancel my account.

My fourth call to TrustFax was fruitful, though. After I waited on hold for 11 minutes, a representative named Leslie came on the line and said that she would review my account. She confirmed that my account was closed, and apologized for the billing error. She even refunded me the $8.95—but not until after she had kept me sitting on the phone for another 17 minutes as she confirmed my billing information, put me on hold, asked me for account information, and put me on hold again. In total I spent about 40 minutes on the phone trying to stop a free trial that had taken merely a few mouse clicks and less than 2 minutes to start.

A spokesperson for TrustFax later apologized, saying that I had been billed erroneously because I had canceled on the last day of the free trial; though the billing had begun the minute my free trial was over, the company's processing of my cancellation request had taken 24 hours.

Technical difficulties

When it’s quit-or-get-billed time, technical snafus are doubly frustrating. I was surprised to see how many services—such as ESPN Insider, FreeCreditScore.com, GameHouse, IMDb Pro, RealPlayer Super Pass, and Spotify Premium—suffered from technical errors on their sites that made canceling hard.

With Spotify Premium, for example, I ran into a password glitch. When I indicated that I wanted to cancel my Spotify account within the client software, the service-cancellation page loaded in my browser and asked me to resubmit my Spotify password. Because I had been forced to set up my Spotify account with my Facebook credentials, I entered my Facebook password. Spotify rejected that password several times, serving up an “Incorrect Password” message despite the fact that I had verified it was correct. At this point, I had few options other than to select the 'Forgot your password?' link.

Next, Spotify declared: “It looks like you are using your Facebook credentials to log in to Spotify. To change your Facebook password go to your settings page at Facebook.com.” After I changed the password using my Google Chrome browser, Spotify still re­­fused to accept my password on its site. I couldn’t unsubscribe.

Graham James, a Spotify spokes­person, later told me that I wasn’t the only person hit with this bug. He said that a “medium-sized” group of people was frustrated by this problem earlier this year, and that the glitch had since been corrected. The issue, James said, was that the browser window Spotify spawned for canceling wouldn’t accept Facebook passwords. The fix was to open a different browser: If you were using, say, Chrome, you could avoid the problem by opening the same Web page in Internet Explorer.

Next page: Hard to find, hard to cancel

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