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

Free trials we liked

Canceling my 14-day free-trial membership to Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary online took only three clicks, allowing me to avoid the $30 annual fee that the service would have charged to my credit card had the trial period expired. My experience in canceling Merriam-Webster’s free trial was excellent, and stood in sharp contrast to the dozen sites that made cancellation feel like a hunt for a piece of cheese in a maze.

Despite the hair pulling that free trials put me through, several services—including AdaptedMind, Ancestry.com, Britannica Online, Dr. Laura, Hulu Plus, Merriam-Webster, SugarSync, and The Weather Channel—proved that it is possible to make parting ways a breeze. (Click the chart above to view it full size.)

What did those sites have in common? Intuitive navigation, clear instructions, and no gotchas after you click the Cancel button. Once I cut ties, these services didn’t send me a barrage of commercial email and “we want you back” pleas.

Hulu Plus goes a step further and offers anyone canceling its service the option to scrub their user data, including credit card information, from its servers.

Making it easy is a choice, not an accident

Many of the services I tested forced me to scour their FAQs for cancellation instructions. Some of the ones I spoke with defended this practice, while others simply played dumb.

Ancestry.com did a great job of steering me to its cancel option in two clicks. All I had to do was visit My Account from the homepage, and on the next screen under the Subscription Options heading was ‘Cancel Subscription’.

Some sites blamed me when I couldn’t find a cancel option. ESPN Insider’s customer service rep told me that I should have known where the cancel option was on the site: “It’s up to you to read the terms and conditions of something you are purchasing,” he said. Later I saw that he was right: The company’s “Terms and Conditions” document states that users need to call to cancel. Even so, though I may be guilty of not having read every terms-of-service agreement at websites, I’m not guilty of failing to try hard to cancel the services after the fact.

Companies such as the SugarSync online backup service sent an email reminder several days before the end of the free trial reminding me that I would be billed if I didn’t cancel. Sadly, nice touches like this were the exception, not the rule, in my tests.

I’m guessing that most services spend a considerable amount of time and money making it easy for visitors to navigate through the site and sign up for services if they choose to—and that it’s probably not by accident that sites also make it hard to cancel their services. But to those sites that make canceling free trials as simple as it is to sign up for them, my compliments.

How to keep free trials free

Who knew that free trials could cost so much? Every day, millions of people get sucked into handing over their credit card numbers for a free trial. After all, signing up for a free trial is simple and quick. Getting out of a free trial is another story, though. Here are some tips for ensuring that your free trials stay free.

  • When you see words such as “free trial” on a website, alarm bells should ring in your head—no matter how credible the site. Take a deep breath before clicking to commit to any such deal, and be sure to read all of the terms and conditions carefully.
  • If the description of the free trial is confusing or vague, the company may be trying to hide something. Skip it!
  • Can’t find the Cancel button? Head to the site’s FAQ section or to the service’s terms of service, and look for the keyword “cancel” by using your browser’s search function.
  • Be your own detective. Before signing up for a free trial, try googling the name of the free trial and “can’t cancel”. Chances are, a bad actor will have an online reputation.
  • If you are charged, call the company offering the free trial as soon as possible. Many services I spoke with said that they would give users their money back if it was an honest mistake. Others, such as ESPN, said that they would prorate the refund based on how many days of the paid service had passed.
  • If you’re billed for a service that you mistakenly forgot to cancel on time, or that you couldn’t cancel after your best efforts, call your credit card company and file a formal claim. Emphasize that you’ve tried to get your money back from the billing company with no success.
  • 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 that the credit card company withhold payment while it investigates. You don’t have the same protection with a debit card purchase.

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