Beware of the free trial

June 29, 2017

I was looking at my bank statement last week and something was wrong. I had a charge of $15 for The Service (a big company that I will not name here), a service I hadn’t used for years after I tried one of their free items. Did I cancel it? No, I didn’t think so. But also, I couldn’t remember actually signing up for it.

It got worse. Looking back at my previous statements I saw that I was also charged the previous month as well. And the month before that. And before that. And over and over for more than four years! Did I miss the billing statement in my email? I checked, but the only email from The Service was about the free item I got over four years ago and a couple emails about a new offer to join The Service. The only “bill” was in the email for the first item from The Service which only said “Total due: $0.00”.

I sign up for free services all the time, and always cancel on time. I’m savvy. Or at least, I thought I was. I tried the customer service. They said they would refund on eyear in my case. That’s not bad, I thought, but I am still out over $600 for something I never used. Failing to cancel a service after a free trial shouldn’t induce a $600 mistake. Especially, since I believe The Service was at fault for not alerting me about their billing.

I’m a researcher, so I did some research. Unfortunately it may be legal to not send out billing statements (another company told me it is the “industry standard”). I have huge qualms with this (it seems awfully predatory not to tell someone you are taking money from their bank account).But In order to convince customer service to repay me back in full, I would need to find something they did that was actually illegal. So I pulled up the legally binding contract between us - the Conditions of Use.

At the very bottom of the Conditions of Use from The Service, I found something promising. It said that if the Conditions of Use were to change, I would automatically agree and be bound to them unless I “stop using the service.” That sounded great, until I kept reading and saw that to “stop using the service by canceling the membership.” I had not actually canceled the membership that I supposedly signed up for, so I was stuck.

But, maybe not. This Conditions of Use was the current version. Using the Internet Archive (thank G-d it exists) I found the Conditions of Use that I actually agreed to in 2013. Strangely, it did not say anything about “canceling the membership” as the only mode in which one can “stop using the service.” This seemed to leave the definition open to interpretation by a reasonable party - and I’m pretty sure any reasonable party would agree that not using The Service for years would indeed fulfill the requirement to “stop using the service.”

I had my loophole. Based on this Conditions of Use, I was being billed and held to an agreement that should have legally been voided when I did not accept the new Conditions of Use. Using the Internet Archive again, I found the first change in the Conditions of Use that I would have had to accept by continuing to use the service. This Conditions of Use was dated one year after I had signed the first one. Thus, it seemed I could likely recoup about three years of billing that The Service was illegally binding me to a contract that we had both agreed to.

I wrote a letter to The Service about my findings. I outlined the unethical and predatory business tactics of sending emails for bills of $0.00 and not actually sending an actual bil. But, more importantly, I demonstrated how they had violated their own terms set out in the Conditions of Use that I agreed to. At the end of the letter I asked to sort this out between ourselves, or get an arbitrator.

The next morning I got a phone call. “Before we begin,” they said, “we will reimburse all your money except the month you used The Service.” That’s not bad, I thought. Getting back hundreds of dollars was worth the $20 I would still have to pay for the “free” item I purchased back in $20. I consider it the cost of the lesson for not carefully checking my bank statement for four years. They also said that it was strange I wasn’t getting emails and they were going to Spam (I check Spam almost every day, and confirmed to The Service this wasn’t the case), but I have my doubts on their insistence of the strangeness.

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Written on 29 June 2017. Categories: thoughts.

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