FTC: It's Time To End 'Dirty Tricks' That Make It Hard To Unsubscribe

We’ve all been there.

Especially in the last decade or so during the rise of the “subscription economy.” It could be the gym, or a membership service, or something else, like a newspaper. We let a subscription we want to cancel continue for months or even years because the monthly pain of continuing is relatively low — less than $20 — and because it’s frustratingly hard to cancel.

A button on the bottom of a newsletter? Impossible. Find a page on a website where you can cancel? Forget it. Call a customer-service line? Good luck, a) finding one or b) getting past a useless automated system or being on hold for hours.

Indeed, an American Press Institute study earlier this year of 526 news organizations in the United States found that only 41% make it easy for people to cancel subscriptions online, and more than half trained customer service reps in tactics to dissuade customers who call to unsubscribe.



The Federal Trade Commission now says such practices are part of a pattern used to trick or trap consumers — and they are illegal. In a statem ent late last month, it promised to ramp up enforcement on such trickery. Instead, it insists that sign-ups must be “clear, consensual and easy to cancel.”

The statement puts companies on notice that they will face legal action if their sign-up process fails to meet those three criteria.
The “enforcement policy statement makes clear that tricking consumers into signing up for subscription programs or trapping them when they try to cancel is against the law,” stated Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Firms that deploy dark patterns and other dirty tricks should take notice.”

The FTC has brought cases challenging a variety of illegal subscription practices, and sued companies that hide important payment information — or even the fact that consumers would be charged at all — behind hyperlinks, hover-overs or in buried pages or inconspicuous places. It has similarly sued companies that make consumers wait on hold or listen to lengthy ads before they could cancel, the statement noted. 

The FTC has also sued companies that converted free trials to paid subscriptions before the free trial ended. And recently, the FTC sued a company that failed to disclose that widely advertised, material benefits of the subscription were no longer available.

Still, Neiman Lab notes, most U.S. news organizations don’t give readers an easy way to cancel online.

When staff writer Sarah Scire checked a week after the FTC’s Oct.28 statement, she found that TheNew York Times still requires talking to a customer-service representative to unsubscribe, either via live chat or by telephone.

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