How to recognize a subscription trap? Examples and tips for avoiding traps

We use the term “subscription trap” in cases in which a consumer orders something on the basis of an advertisement on Internet or email message while unaware of the actual content of the order. In other words, the consumer is duped by the offer.  Nowadays, the primary place where consumers get caught in subscription traps is the Internet – via an advertisement on Facebook or elsewhere online, or one sent to them by email.

The act of misleading may either be intentional or unintentional on the part of the business. The crucial point is that the consumer does not obtain a truthful picture of the message or offer content, and this influences his or her purchasing decision.

In many cases, similar subscription traps lurk online throughout Europe, in different languages and under different product names. You can get ensnared in a subscription trap either by ordering something, or by participating in some competition or survey that seems harmless or even valuable.

Subscription traps have existed in one form or another for the entire 10-year lifespan of the European Consumer Centre. However, they have proliferated over the last five years. In 2014, one Estonian company employing subscription traps generated 500 consumer complaints with us in Finland.

Characteristics of traps in 2015

Lately, we have been receiving complaints about the UK based companies Jobform, Jukebux and Quizonaut. Most of these cases are related to online customer surveys where participation automatically results in membership of some service that is invoiced on a monthly basis. The invoicer goes by the name Wakefield Finance. Many consumers are not aware of any trap until they receive an odd invoice.

Weight-loss pills, teeth-whitening products, eyelash extension products and sleep-inducing products are just some examples of the type of products bringing in dozens of complaints. In typical cases, a free or extremely cheap trial batch is offered initially, but this surreptitiously leads to a longer and more expensive subscription. The trap will only be set off once the consumer receives an invoice for the product in question. The invoice is always completely different from the cheap price which the consumer thought he or she had undertaken to pay.

The latest phenomenon is an invoice arriving first after the subscription cancellation period has expired. Another new wrinkle is the impossibility of verifying the product’s compliance with the order without opening the product packaging. Opening the product packaging results in an annulment of the cancellation right. Many consumers relent and pay the invoice at this point, and the dishonest revenue generation strategy keeps on winning.

Affiliate marketing has added another dimension to the subscription trap problem. What started with pop-ups and mobile content several years ago first moved to Facebook and, in the last few years, advertisements and email offers distributed by many different types of publishers such as bloggers and affiliate marketing companies. Such advertisement may be acceptable but the ones we have encountered often create an illusion which does not comply with the real contents of the offer. It is not always easy to discover the party behind a subscription trap – especially when the trail often leads abroad.

Learn to identify subscription traps and contact us in problematic cases

In the issue 2/2015 of the ECC Finland Newsletter we concentrate on subscription traps with the hope that the consumers’ stories and examples of subscription traps collected here will serve to prevent subscription traps and guide consumers in avoiding and better identifying them.

You can contact the ECC Finland for assistance if you have fallen in to a subscription trap of a company based in other EU country, Iceland or Norway. Our assistance to consumers is free of charge.  ECC Finland collaborates closely with its counterparts in other countries. These form the European Consumer Centres Network, ECC-Net.