Beware Subscription Traps – Be Scam Aware

Daniel VandenBurg, Consumer Intelligence Analyst

Online shopping has become more popular over the past few years. In April 2016 alone, UK consumers spent £12.6 billion online  using credit and debit cards. Although very convenient it is not without risks – online fraud in the UK totalled £261.5 million in 2015.

Earlier this year Citizens Advice  published “Locked in” on one kind of online scam, subscription traps. In this article I will explain what a subscription trap is, how you can protect yourself and what to do if you do become a victim.

What is a subscription trap?

A subscription trap is where someone is tricked into signing up for a costly monthly subscription usually for a health or beauty related product.The offer is a free trial of the product and all you have to pay is a small fee for postage and packing.

The reason for this fee is to obtain your card details. Hidden deep in the terms and conditions, is a clause which states that if you do not cancel within the trial period, you will be auto-enrolled into a regular subscription. You could end up paying up to £99 per payment. The products themselves may not be genuine either and sometimes they do not even turn up.

Things to look out for and how to protect yourself

Be wary of unexpected pop-ups: Several subscription traps make use of pop-ups which appear while you are browsing a site that you trust. This may then link you to a website promoting the subscription trap and could make it look like it is linked to the trusted site. Be wary of giving out your card details on these pop-ups.

Resist pressurising tactics: Subscription trap websites often use wording such as   “only 10 left, hurry now!” or “act now to get this time limited offer”

to encourage you into making a decision without thinking it through. Don’t let yourself be rushed by pushy marketing, if need be take 5 minutes to think it over.

Don’t always believe endorsements: Adverts for subscription traps often use celebrity endorsements or “reviews” from the press. These may not be the real thing and may not have the consent of the celebrity involved.

Always check terms and conditions: It is always worth checking if you can easily find the terms and conditions when signing up to something online; if you can’t, don’t sign up!

What to do if you do become a victim

Try to cancel the payments: subscription traps typically use a payment method called a Continuous Payment Authority or CPA. You set this up by giving a trader your card details. It is your right to cancel a CPA with either the trader or your bank / card issuer. If your bank asks you to contact the trader, tell them this is not necessary or that you have already done so and not been successful – whichever applies. If you do cancel the CPA with your bank / card issuer it is still good practice to inform the trader that you are cancelling the subscription. This is best done in writing, so try and source an address you can write to. Always keep a copy of any letter sent and send by recorded delivery so you can prove it arrived.

Chargeback and Section 75 claims: Many debit and credit cards offer protection on your purchases. Contact your bank saying you want to start a chargeback claim and explain why. Most card issuers have a time limit to do this in – typically 120 days.

If you paid more than £100 on a credit card you are protected by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. This allows you to hold the credit provider jointly liable for the money you have lost. Again, contact your bank/card issuer to request to start a claim and explain why.

Both chargeback and Section 75 claims may not always be successful as the trader can contest the claim. The key thing to communicate to the bank is that the true costs of the agreement were not made sufficiently clear to you when you agreed to the purchase.

Contact the Citizens Advice Consumer Service on 03454 040506. We can give you advice and alert Trading Standards.

Daniel VandenBurg is a Consumer Intelligence Analyst in the Partnership Intelligence Team at Citizens Advice and also Knowledge Hub manager for the Consumer Protection Partnership. Daniel can be reached at daniel.vandenburg@citizensadvice.org.uk

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9 comments

  1. Jane Brydon

    Feeling a degree of foolishness, I would like to share my experience with a company called Beauty and Truth and ask advice. A pop up add on Facebook told me about Debenhams giving free cosmetics as a result of closing stores. It sounds unlikely now but I had heard that Debnhams were closing several stores and the add quickly asked me a few questions about skin types and issues and suggested a Clarins product. I was under the impression that I would pay 4.95 carriage and have a free trial product but would need to opt out of regular supplies which they said was easy to do at any time.
    I entered details of a debit card I rarely use which doesn’t have any overdraft facilities and simply doesn’t honour a transaction if the funds aren’t there.
    Then I was offered another product at a cost of £29.99 which I refused. At this point, before I had completed the process I read the terms and Conditions and realised that this was a face cream priced at £79.95 which would be on automatic renewal unless cancelled but that to cancel you had to return the “free sample” so I closed the window without completing.
    Three days later I received a little pot of Dermagen iQ from Beauty and Truth and paperwork confirming I had indeed signed up to receive one every month unless I cancelled by 13th June. As the date was 17th May I went on line to cancel and was offered the opportunity to cancel and keep the goods if I paid £28.50. I declined the offer and have a message to say that it has been cancelled…..and that I have to return the cream to Cyprus, unopened, in the original packaging and with a code number on the outside before the 13th June or will be charged for it. A brief search indicated that tracked postage will cost about £28. The packaging indicates the cream is made in UK and it was delivered two working days after the “order” by Hermes…..so I doubt it has been anywhere near Cyprus!
    I phoned my card issuer and found out that as well as the £4.95 carriage (to wrinkle repair) at the weekend an additional charge of £2.95 (to Preserve youth) had been made the day before. They have handed it to their Disputed transactions but to safeguard myself (on the bank’s recommendation) I have emptied the account as it is rarely used. I am considering closing it.
    I managed to contact Beauty and Truth through a chat line on their website as I was unable to secure a geographical phone number. It was very slow and clearly designed to encourage the customer to give up in frustration!
    Here’s what I did find out;
    1. My subscription has been cancelled.
    2. The £2.95 is for another product that I am supposed to have signed up for (this may or may not be on its way.)
    3. They are unable to provide me with a postage label to return it at their expense which I requested as I didn’t complete the purchase on line.

    So that’s my sorry little tale. I believe I have acted quickly and extricated myself from some of the outrageous charges I am reading about from this company which others have fallen prey to but I want to ask whether there is anywhere in the UK I can return this to…..or whether I should just hang on to it and offer for them to collect/ send a label?

  2. Dragonslair

    I have been around computers when they were simple AMSTRAD machines!
    I agree with the write up and comments.
    The one addage that people should take away if they are reading this out of interest is: IF IT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE,IT OFTEN IS.
    Any advert or pop up even if your device has pop up blocker that comes up with an invite or winnings or asks you for any personal information- BE AWARE!! The alarm bells should ring in multi-decibels. No reputable banking or legit financial institution will ever ask you for your personal details by email. If you are contacting any company on their website ensure you see the https:// in the address bar before contacting them. The “s” after http ensures the site is secure.
    Nothing can be 100% perfect when using the internet as it is such a vast network, but you can minimise your risk by using a good anti virus and/or anti malware program. There are several out there, some good, some rubbish and some that is middle of the road.
    I have 3 types installed onto my PC, and yes they do a great job at trapping and destroying the latest “baddies”, but I am still very aware of the dangers out there.
    If you can create a program you can also infiltrate and destroy that program, and there are some cleaver people out there who solely does just that-because they can.

    1. Daniel VandenBurg

      Some good advice there, including some I couldn’t add in the length of blog I provided, thanks for adding them in.

  3. Michael

    Pop-up on mobile inviting me to click on ‘Tesco’ prize. Involves simply choice of one of two years when Tesco were formed. If you get it wrong you just select the other year. Then taken onto a ‘roulette’-type wheel, with arrow – 1st spin always loses, 2nd spin always wins ‘Tesco prize’ – you are then invited to PAY for weekly subscription (approx. £4). Legally probably correct as terms are detailed in small print.

    1. Daniel VandenBurg

      Hi Michael

      this sounds quit typical of a subscription trap entry point. I hope you didn’t sign up / lose money.

  4. Sharon wall

    I foolishly clicked onto a pop up on amazon thinking it was genuine free prize has I’m always buying on amazon, renollia I had never heard of them and thought it was just a free face cream, to my horror when speaking to my bank this is a scam and all try and take money now they have my details my bank declined any payments but it has unnerved me that some how they can get into my account, I had never heard of these sites but I will be very careful its actually put me of buying anything online again

    1. Sue osullivan

      I two got scammed by this they took2x£85.95 out of my account, I’m devastated, they will not reply to my emails, when I phoned them 20th oct they said they would contact me in 24 hours never happened. But I will NOT give up.

    2. Daniel VandenBurg

      Hello Sharon

      You don’t need to be put off online shopping as a whole, just follow some caution with how you conduct yourself online. If you decide not to shop online at all you may miss out on some of the best deals you can get not only on consumer products but also your bill tariffs.

  5. Sharon wall

    I foolishly clicked onto a pop up on amazon thinking it was genuine free prize has I’m always buying on amazon, renollia I had never heard of them and thought it was just a free face cream, to my horror when speaking to my bank this is a scam and all try and take money now they have my details my bank declined any payments but it has unnerved me that some how they can get into my account, I had never heard of these sites but I will be very careful its actually put me of buying anything online again

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