What may have started as a deal too good to pass up could end up costing you for months to come. Costly subscription services could be charging your debit or credit card monthly and if you don't keep close tabs on your accounts, you may not even be aware.
The hook may come in the form of an advertisement for a product or service with a surprisingly low price or a promise for goods at just the cost of shipping. But once you provide your card information and place your order, you've signed yourself up for a monthly or recurring fee – buried in the fine print.
“It's always important to evaluate why something seems too good to be true," said Joseph Grant, Operations Group Manager for Card Loss Prevention at PNC's Customer Care Center. “In some cases these merchants are counting on the fact that consumers aren't paying enough attention to the fine print or their bank statements to know they're racking up recurring charges based on a one-time purchase."
Grant said the issue is more common than people might expect, prompting thousands of calls into PNC's Customer Care Center phone lines each month. Confused customers often ask for help identifying the unexpected charges or refunding the fees. In early 2020, Visa updated its rules for merchants offering free trials or subscription services in an attempt to provide transparency and control for purchasers.
“This practice isn't illegal, it's just unfortunately often deceptive," Grant said. “There's no guarantee that money spent can be recouped, which can lead to a lot of extra time spent in the dispute process with a merchant."
Instead, Grant encourages consumers to be vigilant when making online purchases, especially when something comes at a price too good to be true. Consider these tips to help you avoid or identify trials that could turn into a recurring charge.
- Research what you are buying and who you are buying from. An internet search will likely reveal if others have had negative experiences with a merchant.
- Read the fine print on all purchases before finalizing your order. Be on the lookout for any language about recurring or subscription fees.
- Watch for check boxes that may enroll you in subscription services or additional marketing.
- Save any emails confirming your order, which will likely note any important dates or upcoming charges.
- Keep tabs on email for any notifications about an upcoming subscription charge.
- Investigate the merchant's customer service practices. If it's not easy to get in touch with them, they're likely not someone you want to do business with.
- Find out how easy it is to cancel or unsubscribe from a service before you make a purchase.
- Monitor your bank statements and review account activity.
- Contact the merchant quickly to help prevent additional charges if you discover that you have incurred a subscription-related charge and would like to cancel.
“The biggest key is just to be aware, both of what you're signing up for as well as what is happening with money in your account on an ongoing basis," Grant said. “When all parties are transparent, it makes for a better experience for everyone."