If you’ve ever been surprised to find you’ve been automatically charged for a subscription or a service you don’t remember signing up for, you’re not alone: A new survey says that more than a third of Americans have been enrolled in autopay programs — for anything from a gym membership to a streaming service — without realizing it.
According to a telephone survey of 1,002 U.S. adults conducted by CreditCards.com, 35% of respondents have set up an account that enrolled them in automatic payments, with only 11% choosing to keep the autopay turned on.
Younger folks seem to be a bit easier to take in: Gen-Xers (44%) and millennials (37%) were most likely to get stuck with automatic payments.
And of the 42% of respondents who find canceling an automatic payment tricky, Gen-Xers were also the most likely to say it’s “very difficult” to turn off automatic payments, followed by baby boomers.
However, older people are better at avoiding autopay traps, with those 72 and older significantly more likely than all the other age groups to say they’ve never signed up automatic payments without realizing it.
Negative option billing rears its ugly head
As we’ve seen before, many of these accounts start out as a free trial that is automatically renewed unless the customer cancels it — a method known as “negative option billing.” Almost half of respondents said they were unknowingly charged for some kind of subscription after that trial period ended. Only 9% of those people kept the subscriptions after the trial period ended.
Although the Federal Trade Commission has a rule designed to protect consumers from such negative option offers, it’s a bit behind the times.
“The negative option rule … has to do with old ‘book-of-the-month club’ issues and a very specific type of negative option that we normally don’t see anymore,” said James Kohm, director of the FTC’s enforcement division.
However, the Restore Online Shopper’s Confidence Act does protect consumers from getting charged for services online without their consent, and requires merchants to fully disclose their terms of billing.
There’s also a bill titled the Unsubscribe Act that was recently introduced, which would add more consumer safeguards against deceptive online negative options, as well as make it easier to cancel them.
How to avoid unexpected auto charges
• Check out the service or company online or get in touch with your state attorney general’s office — if others have complained about a negative option or a free trial, it might be best to stay away.
• Be wary of free trial offers, and be especially wary of any site that pressures you into providing your credit card or bank account information, making a purchase, or committing to a subscription right away.
“You need to decide whether you want to participate in negative options and free offers,” Kohm said. “You can also decide whether you’re dealing with a company that you know and trust.”
• If you do get hooked by a free trial that’s anything but, you can dispute payments with your credit card issuer. You can also check out our handy guide for more on what to do if you keep getting auto-billed for something you don’t want.