Subscription traps are deceptive devices which work by tricking consumers into signing up to a long-term contract for goods or services. They do so by including a tie-in period or through a commitment on the part of the consumer to take deliveries until they cancel, with refunds not allowed unless goods are faulty. Consumers who are deceived are not aware of a subscription until goods arrive or money is first taken from their account.
Consumers can be led to sign up by:
Attraction. Many subscription traps offer upfront 'trials, 'special offers' or 'rewards' that are free, discounted or described in reassuring but vague terms - for example as being 'risk-free' with no further explanation. Details of the consumer's continuing commitment are hidden behind the offer.
Distraction. Another type of subscription trap offers products or services in addition to the purchase consumers set out to make - often in a pop-up window that appears during or just after the original sales process. Sometimes, consumers can sign up for a subscription just by entering an email address and clicking one button.
Subscription traps have been discovered in operation by some websites marketing:
- Health foods and super-foods including acai berries and preparations based on them
- Cosmetics, particularly 'miracle' anti-ageing or anti-wrinkle products
- Membership-benefits schemes, typically offering vouchers, discounts or cash-back
Advice from the OFT
- Be very wary if you are asked to enter any payment card details for a free offer and make sure you check the small print.
- If you are not sure of the site, look for online reviews, and be careful about agreeing to any other options.
- You should check your bank and credit card statements regularly to make sure that you are aware of what payments you are making. If you find any you are unsure of you should contact your bank or card provider at once
- If you are caught out it is possible to stop future payments being made on your Debit and Credit Card by contacting your bank or card company.
The Citizens Advice consumer service provides free, confidential and impartial advice on consumer issues. Visit www.adviceguide.org.uk or call the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 08454 04 05 06.
The OFT's enforcement role is changing
From 2 April 2013, under changes to the consumer protection regime introduced by Government, there will be a greater role for the local authority Trading Standards Services in the enforcement of consumer protection law at national level. The OFT will retain all of its current consumer enforcement powers but will tend to use them where breaches of consumer protection law point to systemic failures in a market. This means cases will more often be taken against a number of firms in a market, rather than cases against individual firms, unless changing the behaviour of one firm would set a precedent or have other market-wide implications.
The OFT will also retain the lead role for the enforcement of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 although the Trading Standards Services will have equal enforcement powers.
In the first instance consumers are encouraged to contact Citizens Advice regarding any problems they may have in buying goods or services.