Like millions of Americans, Colorado State Rep. Cathy Kipp started a diet during the pandemic. She used a highly advertised program called Noom, which came with a discounted offer for the first eight months.
She stopped following the program after about six months. But like millions of others, she forgot to cancel after the initial contract ended, and Noom automatically renewed her for another eight months, at a total cost of $179.
“I did [legislative] bills, and I didn’t have time to cancel, and I should have,” Kipp, a Democrat, acknowledged in a phone interview.
Kipp said everyone he met had a similar story. Another client of her hair salon, for example, said she was angry with her local newspaper for automatically renewing her subscription. “If you have to take proactive steps to cancel a contract, it becomes that much more difficult,” Kipp said.
Kipp’s experience, along with those of her constituents, prompted her to introduce a bill to make it easier to cancel auto-renewing subscription plans.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed his bill in July and the law took effect Jan. 1. It requires companies to provide detailed information about how an automatic renewal works, to give at least 25 days’ notice before renewal begins, and to provide a “simple, cost-effective, quick and easy-to-use” way to renew. ‘to cancel.
The bill passed easily despite some opposition from companies that use automatic renewal, Kipp said, largely because nearly every lawmaker she spoke to said they had had similar experiences. She recalled a member of staff stopping her on her way to the House room saying she had tried to get out of a wine subscription club.
“It’s about everybody,” Kipp said, “because everybody has these auto-renewing contracts, and everybody’s struggling to get by.”
Online marketing experts say the dollar amount of auto-renewal plans is hard to quantify. But a 2019 study for the UK government, which is also considering regulating auto-renewing contracts, found that subscriptions at unregulated companies are worth around £25bn a year, or around $33.3bn. Americans. The study showed that consumers spend around £1.8 billion (US$2.4 billion) a year on subscriptions they don’t think are good value.
Putting limits on auto-renewing plans is becoming increasingly popular.
Many other states, including California, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, and Virginia, have enacted similar laws to limit automatic renewal, and about 10 other states are considering similar legislation. This year.
In addition to state laws, the auto-renewal plans have prompted class action lawsuits, and the Federal Trade Commission is also looking into the matter.
Noom, the company that inspired Kipp’s bill, earlier this month settled a $62 million class action lawsuit, in which app users alleged the company misled consumers by enrolling in programs that were difficult to exit. In the lawsuit, eight former customers alleged that Noom charged them anywhere from $45 to nearly $450 without their consent.
One of the allegations postulated that Noom forced customers to cancel through their Noom personal trainers, who proved difficult to reach and often did not respond before the trial period ended and the contract was automatically renewed. The lawsuit quoted an unnamed Noom software engineer as saying the rollback process was made difficult “by design.”
As part of the lawsuit, Noom has changed its subscription practices, according to an open investigation letter of the company’s founders, Artem Petakov and Saeju Jeong. Emails to Noom’s public relations department requesting comment on state laws regarding automatic renewals went unanswered.
The problem is widespread. Overall, the Better Business Bureau in 2020 reported more than 58,400 complaints about “free trials” and auto-renewals over the previous three years, in which customers lost an average of $140.
Harry Brignull, a digital designer and psychologist who uses the term “dark patterns” to describe the methods he studies, said the idea is to get clients to do “things you wouldn’t do if you understood it at the time” or to make it so difficult for customers to exit a system that they are abandoning.
In a telephone interview from the UK, where the same types of methods occur as in the US, Brignull said types of coercion include:
- “Roach Motel”, in which the site facilitates the purchase but difficult to leave. (This is modeled after the pest control slogan: “You can check in, but you can’t leave.”)
- The prevention of price comparison, which makes it difficult to compare services.
- “Sneak into Cart”, in which additional items are added to an order.
- Wrong direction, in which the user design deliberately focuses your attention on one thing to distract you from another.
- Hidden costs, plus additional charges at the end of the checkout process.
- Forced continuity, such as when a free trial ends but a credit card continues to be charged.
“When you’re designing a website, it’s easy to make something easy or hard,” Brignull said. “It doesn’t cost anything to do that.”
For example, if a company has limited hours for cancellation, the user may forget. If the hours are Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, that might be inconvenient for someone calling on a Saturday. Once a customer is transferred to a representative, that employee will likely try to dissuade the customer from canceling by offering another “free” month, he said.
The California law, enacted last year, goes into effect July 1. It adds a new renewal reminder and cancellation requirements to an existing law.
Under the new law, companies selling packages with an initial term of one year or more will need to notify that the package is due for renewal within 15 to 45 days of the renewal date. These notices will let consumers know that contracts will automatically renew unless cancelled. Additionally, if companies offer a “free trial” or initial discount lasting longer than one month, they must give similar notices to subscribers three to 21 days before the end of the trial period.
California Assemblyman Marc Berman, the Democrat who sponsored the California bill, said in a phone interview that he tried to cancel a subscription he subscribed to online and that he “had found himself in this abyss”.
“You have to go here and do this, then go there and do that, then you have to call someone between 2 and 2:30 p.m. every Wednesday,” he said.
“I was telling my staff about it, and they all had similar stories,” he said. “I think that’s why the bill has been so successful; all my colleagues have been there.
There was, however, opposition from trade associations and companies that use these tactics. The Association of Magazine Media, a trade group, which also opposed the Colorado bill, worked in both states to change the bills, but not to kill them outright.
Rita Cohen, the magazine group’s senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy, said the organization offered suggestions in California and testified in Colorado. One of the group’s concerns was the timing and length of notices that would be required to cancel subscriptions.
Cohen said different state deadlines and requirements make it difficult for businesses to comply. “Our intention is to make it easier for the consumer,” she said.
“More and more states are saying that if you buy online, you should be able to cancel online,” she added, but some bills simply say that consumers should be able to cancel “by the same method” as they subscribed.
That’s impractical, Cohen said, because, for example, some people subscribe to magazines at trade shows and can’t travel to another show to cancel. Changing the law to accommodate sellers “shows an understanding of the need to balance both commercial realities and what is best for the consumer”.
In October, the FTC announced it was cracking down on what it described as “dark patterns” and “trick or trap” schemes used to trick people into signing up for goods or services and then automatically renewing them. or make them difficult to undo.
“The agency is stepping up enforcement in response to a growing number of complaints about financial harm caused by deceptive listing tactics, including unauthorized charges or impossible ongoing billing. [to] cancel,” the agency said in a Press release. The agency said it would increase its legal action against companies if they fail to provide “clear, up-front information, obtain informed consent from consumers, and facilitate cancellation.”
In September, the FTC won a $10 million lawsuit against children’s learning company ABCmouse, which the agency said unfairly charged users and made it difficult to cancel the service. More than 250,000 people have received refunds because of the case, the agency said.
In 2015, a similar case brought by the FTC against DirectTV was ultimately dismissed, as a judge said there was insufficient evidence to support the $4 billion claim.