Subscription traps are situations where consumers sign up online for an apparently free or really low-cost trial of products. However, after doing so, they realise they have unwillingly committed themselves to costly repeat payments.

According to a recent survey carried out by the European Union, 68 per cent of consumers in the EU have purchased online goods and services at least once during 2017. Despite this, consumers are still not fully aware of their rights when shopping online, especially when it comes to the use of free trials and subscriptions.

Some free trials involve commercial practices that lead consumers into subscription traps, which means they would automatically buy the suggested product or service. Very often, these products include slimming pills, health foods and anti-ageing products. Lately, there have also been an increase in attractive durable consumer products, such as mobile phones.

Free trials are not illegal. However, when one opts to take up these free trials, one is automatically signing up to a subscription for a product or service that is not made explicitly clear in the advertisements. Such practice can be considered misleading.

Subscription traps also carry with them certain risks. When subscribing to these free or low-cost offers, consumers think they are making a bargain. Afterwards they find out that the subscription is costing them hundreds, if not thousands more. Furthermore, once consumers agree to such deals, they might not be able to cancel the agreement or stop the payments being taken from their bank account.

Even though subscription traps are quite common, there are several things consumers can do so as not to fall for them. Firstly, one should always read the terms and conditions, especially the small print, before agreeing to make any purchase, even if this takes up a lot of time. Apart from this, one should check and ensure that there are no pre-ticked boxes. If there are, consumers should be aware that these are illegal.

Consumers have more chance of cancelling any agreements or getting a refund of the money paid if the company is in the EU

When reading the description or the terms and conditions, one is also advised to check whether there is a limited time frame during which the subscription can be cancelled. Consumers should also keep in mind that any purchase that is done off-premises or through distance selling has a 14-day cooling-off period during which they can cancel the order without having to give any reason. If consumers are not informed by the seller about their right to cancel the sale, the cancellation period is extended to 12 months or to 14 days after the seller informs the consumer about the right of withdrawal.

It is also important to see that no bank account details are given to companies without doing some research about the company involved. It is also recommended to search for other consumers’ reviews, although one still needs to be cautious about these, as they may be fake.

Consumers are also advised to keep a copy of the advertisement they saw together with the webpage link. They shouldkeep in mind that they have more chance of cancelling any agreements or getting a refund of the money paid if the company is in the EU.

If one has entered such a trap, and especially after cancelling a deal, consumers should check their bank statement regularly to see whether there have been any unauthorised transactions.

Even after taking all the necessary precautions, many people still fall victim to these subscription traps. However, there are still ways how one can get out of them. Consumers should first try and contact the company concerned and inform the trader that they would like to cancel the agreement. If the company keeps making unauthorised withdrawals of funds from the consumers’ bank account, consumers should contact their bank in order to stop such payments. One can also request reimbursement from the supplier if the advertisement did not mention the extra hidden charges.

Furthermore, if the company website has been changed and consumers do not have any screenshots as proof of the original advertisement, they can try to access their browser’s internet history.

If after doing all this, consumers still do not manage to solve the problem, they may contact the European Consumer Centre – Malta for assistance. Consumers should, however, keep in mind that the ECC can only help them if the trader with whom they have a dispute is situated in an EU Member State and the trader is actually a trader, not an individual.

This information has been provided by the European Consumer Centre – Malta.

Odette Vella is director, Information Education and Research Directorate, Office for Consumer Affairs, Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority.