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UK European Consumer Centre

Subscription traps

person browsing on a laptop making online purchasesMany social media users will have seen adverts and offers that appear too good to be true. Some such offers relate to free trials of products from diet pills or supplements, to tooth whitening to face creams. 

But what is sometimes behind the scenes is the intention of the company to use this attractive initial offer as a means to extract money from people’s bank accounts.  This is usually done in the form of an ongoing subscription.  These companies rely on the fact that consumers can be blinded by these great offers and as a result don’t read the terms and conditions, leading to a negative effect on consumers’ bank balances.


The customer may only realise what is happening until the next payment or maybe the payment after that has been made and some of their money has disappeared.


As we’ve all heard before, “if it seems too good to be true, it usually is”.  Very few companies will offer you a trial of anything unless it is going to lead on to further purchases – that’s well worth remembering if you’re tempted by a ‘trial’.  This is often done by an automatic renewal system which places the responsibility on the customer to actively cancel an ongoing contract.


Of course, a company has to tell you about this but unfortunately if you don’t read the terms then you don’t know that they’ve told you.  However, if the company fails to provide you with important information regarding ongoing obligation and ongoing costs then you may have a right to get refunds of any extra money taken.


What rights do you have

If you have ordered goods then usually you will have a right to change your mind. There are some exceptions to the right to cancel, so we recommend that you leave a product in the same condition as it was when it arrived.  If the product comes in a container with a security seal, then make sure you leave that seal in place.  Usually your cooling- off period will be 14 days starting the day after delivery of the item, during which time you might have the right to send the goods back to get a refund. We recommend that you send goods back by some kind of tracked or registered mail so you have proof of their return. Once the goods have been returned, the trader should provide you with a refund of the money that you paid within 14 days of them receiving the goods, or within 14 days of you proving that the goods have been returned.

The UK ECC has issued a checklist for consumers to consider if they have ordered samples or accepted an offer which has led to being stuck in a subscription trap:

·       Do not use the product when it is delivered. Often the products are marketed as sample packages, but in the order confirmation it is called a welcome pack.

·       Carefully read the terms and conditions and the order confirmation. Usually it is not until then that you discover that the offer has led to a subscription. If it is not clear that the offer leads to a subscription, you may not be bound by the subscription.

·       Check if you are bound by the order which imposes a claim on payment. You are only bound by an order that entails a payment obligation if the obligation has been clarified before ordering and you have explicitly assumed the obligation.

·       Check if you can withdraw from the purchase. You have the right to a 14-day cooling-off period for distance purchases of goods within the EU. If the trader has not informed you of your right of withdrawal, the withdrawal period is extended by 12 months. If you are outside of those periods and have no automatic right of withdrawal, look for information in the terms and conditions on how to terminate the subscription.

·       Use your right of withdrawal. Send a withdrawal message to the trader by e-mail or regular mail. Remember to keep a copy. If you send the message by regular mail, remember to ask the post office for a receipt which confirms that you have sent the letter.

·       Return the unused product. Make sure you get a shipment receipt. It may also be useful to make sure that the package is trackable. You must pay the return shipping charge.

·       Demand to get a refund. You are entitled to demand a refund for the money you have paid for the product, including shipping. If you have paid by bank card, contact the card issuer and ask for the possibility of doing a chargeback. 

     Can you block your bank card? Check with your bank if you can cancel your bank card, preventing the company from withdrawing more money from your card. Keep in mind that you may be charged for the order of a new bank card 

The checklist was put together with the help of the European Consumer Centre Network, of which the UK ECC is a part, as a result of a joint ECC-Net project looking into subscription traps. ECC-Net has offices in 30 countries in Europe.

For more information about purchasing online, or any other consumer query please contact us on 01268 886690 or visit our website

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