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Customers fight surprise charges as online subscriptions surge

Businesses try to push back when customers cancel subscriptions they didn't know they signed up for.
Jolene Stewart at her home in Reno, Nev.
Jolene Stewart at her home in Reno, Nev.Jamie Kingham / for NBC News

When Jolene Stewart placed an order online for lingerie from Rihanna's line, Fenty X Savage, this year, she unwittingly signed up for a subscription that charged her bank account every month in exchange for credits to buy more bras and underwear.

"It was part of a deal, and I guess I didn't read the fine print close enough," said Stewart, 22, a recent college graduate.

As soon as Stewart realized that she had been charged, she canceled the subscription and opted to use the credits she had already paid for. Three months later, Stewart discovered that Fenty X Savage had been charging her $49.95 a month for a subscription she was sure she had canceled — the company restarted her subscription when she used the credits, she said, sharing screenshots of the three payments with NBC News.

When Stewart asked that her card be refunded and that her subscription be canceled, the company refunded her for only one month, she said. The ordeal cost her close to $150 that she had never intended to spend.

"I love Rihanna and her products," she said. "So I was really surprised and was like I guess won't be shopping there anymore."

Savage X Fenty, which declined to comment, is far from the only company drawing in new customers with online subscription programs. As online retailers look for new revenue sources, more companies are introducing subscription models to lock in customers. The subscription-based services automatically deduct money from customers' accounts without consumers realizing they've made the purchases.

"Everything's become a subscription these days," said Patrick Campbell, the CEO of ProfitWell, which makes software for merchants to manage online subscriptions and tracks over 23,000 subscription e-commerce companies. "Anyone under the sun has realized the subscription-based models are a better revenue stream."

But customers are catching on and complaining more volubly that they're being charged for things they say they never meant to buy. Because of the prevalence of fraud in online shopping, banks and credit card companies have long had customer-friendly policies that make it relatively easy to contest suspicious or unwanted charges and get refunds. The cost of the refunds traditionally has fallen on merchants.

So merchants are pushing back and making it even more difficult for customers to get their money back. Online retailers have even created a special advocacy group within the Merchant Risk Council, an e-commerce industry association, to focus on ways to protect merchants from taking more financial hits from customers who dispute subscription charges.

An estimated 75 percent of all returned payments for merchants in the online subscription space can be chalked up to customers who paid for services but then claimed that they hadn't intended to and contested the charges, according to a study by the research company Aite, which was sponsored by a Mastercard company.

Friendly fraud

Subscription services have been on a roller coaster through the pandemic as more shoppers have ordered goods online and then realized that they were paying for things they didn't want.

Online merchants that sell goods and services that require recurring payments grew by 70 percent in June and then quickly dropped by about 40 percent in October. That means the industry's monthly recurring revenue grew by only 30 percent, according to data from ProfitWell. People simply decided that they didn't want or use the services they'd signed up for or, in some cases, didn't realize that they had signed up for subscriptions at all, prompting them to contest the charges on their accounts as fraudulent, Campbell said.

The practice of canceling unwanted subscriptions has become so common that e-commerce analysts call it "friendly fraud," because it's a customer saying the charge was unintentional and therefore incorrect, even if the customer signed up for the service but forgot to cancel. Banks have streamlined contesting charges even more in recent years by adding simple ways to dispute unwanted recurring payments within their mobile apps, which customers have been taking advantage of, according to the study by Aite. It also found that dispute volumes double with every new method for customers to challenge unwanted charges.

The disputes cost e-commerce companies billions of dollars a year in returned revenue, in addition to the cost of customer support and bank fees for undoing the transactions, said Julie Fergerson, the CEO of the Merchant Risk Council. For online subscription services, 60 percent to 80 percent of fraud claims by customers can be chalked up to customers' contesting charges for services, Fergerson said.

"It's been increasing every year, and it's gotten out of control. Everyone's been trained to just call their bank and that the bank will take care of you. It comes from the whole zero-liability model from card issuers that gave people the confidence to buy online years ago," Fergerson said.

That puts the onus to repay disputed claims on merchants, and it makes it relatively easy for customers to call their banks to contest serial charges, even if technically they did sign up for the services and simply forgot to cancel.

Card issuers, like Visa and Mastercard, instituted new rules this year requiring merchants to send notifications before they charge customers who went from free trials to subscriptions, along with clearer instructions about how to cancel.

New tricks

In response, businesses are coming up with enticing ways to draw in customers with free trials. Then, when customers try to end unwanted subscriptions, they're discouraged through arduous cancellation processes.

"Before the pandemic, Hulu allowed you to finish your free trial, even if you canceled. Now, when you cancel your free trial, you lose immediate access to their services, even if you still have time left," said Joshua Browder, the founder of Do Not Pay, a company that specializes in helping consumers cancel and contest unwanted subscriptions. "This recent introduction is a dark pattern designed to nudge consumers away from canceling by hoping they forget. Netflix, meanwhile, has ended all free trials."

Hulu didn't respond to requests for comment. Netflix spokesperson Ebony Turner said in a statement, "We're looking at different marketing promotions in the U.S. to attract new members and give them a great Netflix experience."

Companies are also raising the prices on recurring charges. The average price of subscriptions during the pandemic rose by 18 percent, according to data from over 100,000 subscriptions that Do Not Pay monitored and shared exclusively with NBC News.

The combined variables make it far more difficult and costly to get out of subscriptions. It's not a deceptive practice, said Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who studies manipulation in digital markets, because merchants usually aren't misrepresenting that customers will be charged monthly. But the fact that a practice isn't deceptive doesn't mean it's fair.

"When companies make it hard to cancel or promise savings from a subscription and then have the price creep back up, those practices would begin to cross into deceptive territory," Calo said.

Getting results

Some customers are finding that the only way to get answers is to complain on Twitter. Tanya Janca signed up for a monthly subscription to Adobe Acrobat Pro this year to make materials for the online security training courses she offers through her business, We Hack Purple Academy. After she tried the service, Janca quickly realized it wasn't a tool she wanted to use again.

But like so many other people who sign up for subscriptions, Janca forgot that she had subscribed. That is, until months later, when her accounting software reminded her that Adobe was charging her $14.99 a month, in total costing $119 for a service she used once and forgot about.

Janca said that when she called to cancel her subscription, Adobe told her it would cost her $30. She said that when she tried to cancel the automatic renewal setting on her account, there was no online way to do it. So she went to the customer service chat option, which took 45 minutes. She said she was told that, even though she had canceled her subscription, she couldn't turn the auto-renewal off until the subscription period officially ended, meaning she'd have to remember to cancel months later.

Frustrated, Janca took to Twitter, where she complained about the ordeal to her over 32,000 followers. Someone from Adobe saw her tweets, and the company canceled her subscription completely.

Asked for clarification about the fee Janca was told she would have to pay to end her subscription and her attempt to cancel auto-renewal on her account, Adobe provided a link to its subscription policy and declined to comment further. The written policy permits cancellation with a termination fee, and it says customers can cancel at any time.

"This solves this for me personally, but not other users," Janca tweeted after the issue was resolved, acknowledging that she might not have been so lucky if she had a smaller social media following to whom she could vent her complaints.

Avoiding charges

Experts advise customers who don't have influential Twitter followings to keep a close eye on bank accounts and use a bank with a mobile app that informs them any time a deduction is made. Otherwise, one forgotten subscription could easily add up like it did for Stewart, the Savage X Fenty customer.

"At least I was able to warn my friends," Stewart said, adding that she has become wary of all retailers online selling subscriptions. "I've found that with a lot of the subscription services, you have to go through, like, 20 pages to cancel."