European Consumer Centres: Subscription traps are rife in the Nordic countries

Online advertisements for what appear to be free, no-obligation product samples, service trials, and various kinds of competitions are becoming more and more of a nuisance for Nordic consumers. The number of complaints received by European Consumer Centres in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland concerning subscription traps has increased alarmingly in recent years. Consumers who think they are just ordering a sample pack or a cheap test batch but subsequently find sometimes substantial unauthorised charges on their credit cards feel rightfully cheated.

Think twice before you click on an online advertisement for a free product sample or a competition with amazing prizes. A free trial may turn out to not be free after all, and you may find yourself snared into a costly subscription trap.

Number of complaints from Nordic consumers on the rise

The European Consumer Centres Network (ECC-Net), which provides advice and help for consumers in matters relating to cross-border trade within the EU, receives more and more complaints concerning free product trials and subscription traps every year. European Consumer Centres in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark have all reported increases in the number of these kinds of complaints from 2014 to the beginning of October 2016, and want to pool their resources to address the phenomenon.

Subscription traps are scams that give consumers an untruthful picture of a product or the terms of an offer. In many of these cases, consumers find themselves with a subscription that they did not authorise. They may have clicked on a button that says “Next” or “Select”, when what is actually meant is “Place order” or “Buy now”. This can happen to anyone. The best way to avoid these kinds of traps is to not click on pop-up advertisements or at least to read the terms and conditions, if you can find them”, says Leena Lindström, Director of the European Consumer Centre in Finland.

Altogether, European Consumer Centres have received more than 5,400 complaints in less than three years concerning subscription traps from Nordic consumers.

Example of a typical subscription trap

The most common scenario is one in which a consumer takes up an offer of a product or a service that is advertised as free or as only costing very little. Examples include online dating site trials and well-being products, such as weight-loss pills, stop-snoring solutions, facial masks, and vitamins. There are also offers to become a product tester or to enter a competition for prizes such as a smartphone or a flat-screen TV.

In most cases, the consumer stumbles on the deal on social media, but there are also cases where the offer is sent by email or catches the consumer’s eye elsewhere on the internet. For the consumer to be able to take advantage of the deal, they are usually asked to give the vendor their credit card details for the purpose of a nominal charge, such as the cost of postage or a test batch. At some time later, the consumer contacts their local European Consumer Centre and explains that their credit card has been charged for larger amounts without their authorisation, perhaps on several occasions. It turns out that the deal was actually for a fixed-term subscription, which is subject to completely different charges than what the vendor led the consumer to understand.

If you see an attractive advertisement online…

  • Do not commit to the deal without thinking it through; take the time to read the terms and conditions, and remember that the most significant terms are often found right at the end. If you cannot find the terms and conditions, walk away.
  • Google the name of the brand, service, or vendor; you may find accounts of other people’s experiences of the same deal.
  • If you are informed that you have won something in a prize draw that you did not enter, do not waste time trying to claim your prize. This is most likely an attempt to phish your contact information so that you can be sent offers via email in the future.
  • You should never disclose your social security number to a company offering free product samples or two-euro Nike trainers.
  • “Today only, for you only” will probably still be valid tomorrow.
  • If you pay by card, always use a credit card.
  • Do not become a product tester unless you have read the contract terms all the way down to the last sentence.
  • Never order anything from a company that only uses a PO box as its address.