The Nightmare Of Cancelling Subscription Accounts

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PC World Senior Editor Tom Spring signed up for 32 online accounts. Then tried to cancel all of them. The most difficult to cancel: NetZero. The easiest to cancel: Consumer Reports Online and The New York Times TimesSelect. Read on to hear about his customer service nightmare.

It took me less than 5 minutes to sign up for a NetZero dial-up Internet account. But after canceling that account, I spent a week trying in vain to reverse a charge that the service levied after my cancellation request.

I had to call NetZero a total of five times, holding for several minutes and then enduring long and fruitless conversations with company agents every time I called. According to the NetZero representatives that I spoke to, I needed to talk to a supervisor to arrange a credit, but none was ever available when I called. In the end, I gave up and let NetZero keep the money.

To evaluate how difficult canceling an online service can be, I signed up for and then canceled 32 accounts, each at a different site. About a third of the services in my sample made the seemingly simple goal of canceling very hard to achieve (see the "Big Hassle" entries in "Want to Cancel That Service?").

Not all of my experiences were negative. Services such as a monthly New York Times TimesSelect online subscription and a monthly Consumer Reports Online account took only minutes to cancel and without lingering strings. But some others made me feel as though I'd joined the Sopranos' family business: Once I signed up, there was no quitting!

How Much Hassle?

I subscribed to the services beginning last July, and I canceled--or tried to cancel--them all between August and October. Afterward, I considered several factors in assessing how hard it was to cancel each service and to receive any promised trial-period refunds. For example, I downgraded companies that failed to provide a way to unsubscribe through their Web sites. I also dinged merchants when they continued to bill me after I had canceled, and if they made me feel like a Net gumshoe searching their Web site for clues on how to unsubscribe. And I penalized sites whose customer service personnel pressured me repeatedly to continue my subscriptions or even buy other services. Finally, I took into account how long the various companies kept me on hold, and whether they continued to send me e-mail after I had canceled.

Of course, hassle is to a certain extent in the eyes of the beholder. A 10-minute call with one company might be fine if the representative is polite and helpful. The same amount of time with another company might be highly annoying.

Companies labeled "No Hassle" made severing ties relatively easy. For instance, some of them let me cancel by filling out an online form or sending an e-mail, and then they left me alone. Companies labeled as "Some Hassle" received unsatisfactory marks on one or more criteria. Companies that earned the "Big Hassle" rating failed on several measures; they made it so hard for me to cancel that I regretted having signed up with them in the first place. For a detailed list of the criteria I used in rating the various services, see "Thirteen Strikes"; and for more about the particulars of my experiences with each service I tried, see "Service Cancellation Woes."

Not-So-Free Free Trials

Weeks after a NetZero agent told me that he was canceling my account, a charge for $14.95 appeared on my credit card bill. So I called back, providing my name and my old NetZero account information. The customer service agent told me that I would need to supply a "transaction number" from my credit card account in order to obtain a refund.

Half an hour later, I called back with a transaction number. Another NetZero agent told me that the transaction number I had supplied was wrong, and said that his supervisor would call me back within half an hour. When no supervisor called, I called back. There was still no supervisor available. The next day, I received a voice-mail message requesting that I call again. I did, but there was still no supervisor on hand. I finally decided that it wasn't worth the effort, and I gave up on getting the refund.

NetZero said later in a written statement that the company "sincerely apologized" for the trouble I had encountered, but it did not indicate to me whether the company planned to change its practices.

I had a hard time canceling my $5 monthly Gold Classmates.com account, too. I couldn't find any information on how to cancel until I entered the word cancel In the site's search engine. Classmates.com spokesperson John Uppendahl confirmed that there is no other way to find cancellation information. But that was only the first hoop I had to jump through to cancel my membership.

Classmates.com also forced me to click through several Web pages reminding me of the benefits I'd lose. Finally my clicking ended at a generic Member Support e-mail contact page containing a blank 'Your Question' field. Though the form said nothing about cancellations, I used it to request that the service cancel my subscription. The next day I received an e-mail message confirming that the service had accepted my request.

When I asked Uppendahl why canceling my account took so many steps, he replied that this was the way that Classmates.com handled cancellations. He declined to answer further questions.

Easy Sign-Up, Hard Cancel

"You can't annoy someone into liking your brand," says Harley Manning, vice president of research at Forrester Research. But some companies certainly act as though they think he's wrong.

In January 2006, America Online agreed to pay $25 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought against it in the St. Clair County, Illinois, circuit court. The suit alleged, among other things, that AOL had billed customers for services that they had tried to cancel. The company settled a similar suit brought by the state of Ohio in 2005. In both cases, AOL denied any wrongdoing.

Sixteen days after I signed up for an AOL 90-Day Risk-Free dial-up account in Massachusetts, I decided to cancel the account. When I called AOL to do so, a representative peppered me with questions as to why I was unsubscribing and reminded me that I could maintain a free AOL e-mail account. I declined the offer, and the rep finally told me, "You will not be charged any monthly membership fees." I had similar experiences canceling the other two accounts.

But even though I canceled my 90-day trial after only 16 days, I was hit with a charge of $25.90, the monthly AOL fee, on my credit card. I also signed up for similar AOL accounts in Colorado (using a friend's address) and New York (using a relative's address). In both of those cases, my credit card was charged the monthly fee.

Later, when I called back and questioned why I had been billed, another representative told me that I had to ask for a refund, or else I wouldn't receive one--odd, given that the first rep had said that I wouldn't be billed.

An AOL spokesperson confirmed to me that members must request a refund in order to get one, and said that its customer service reps had erred each time I cancelled over the phone. Instead of telling me that I wouldn't be charged "any fees," the spokesperson said, they should have indicated to me that I wouldn't be charged "any additional fees."

MSN Internet billed me twice after I had closed that account. Likewise, Netflix charged me after I had canceled there.

These were honest mistakes, according to the companies involved. "As soon as issues like yours are brought to the attention of customer service, they are remedied immediately," Netflix spokesperson Bronagh Hanley assured me. A spokesperson for MSN echoed Netflix's statements. But in both cases I had to call to get the charges removed.

When I called to cancel RealNetworks' Real SuperPass I spoke with a company representative who kept cajoling me to change my mind. He then tried to sell me on the benefits of other RealNetworks services. All told, he asked me 13 times in several different ways to remain a customer.

Carol Rogalski, a spokesperson for RealNetworks, told me that my experience was a one-time occurrence. Then why, I asked Rogalski, had I encountered similar exit hassles earlier in the same month when I tried to unsubscribe from RealNetworks' Real Rhapsody service? According to Rogalski, RealNetworks is now conducting investigations into both incidents.

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Posted by Richard Hooker on 2009-08-07 16:03:52
Great article! We need more of this in the mainstream press.

AOL did the same thing to me. I signed up for their free account and then cancelled two weeks later. The representative insisted that I at least keep the account open through the free period and I kept telling her to cancel the account. I then thought it was over. Because I got burned on another subscription service a couple months later (I cancelled, they charged my card, I cancelled again, they charged my card again), I cancelled my card. But, unbeknownst to me, AOL hadn't cancelled my subscription and tried to bill my card. I didn't know this (the card number was cancelled) until they sent me a threatening letter ten months later that I owed them $100 for three months service. They hadn't cancelled the account, they didn't send any emails or mails the first, second, or third time they tried to bill my card, and they only sent me a letter when the bills were 120 days overdue. When I called them to complain that I had cancelled the account and didn't owe them anything, the representative was extremely aggressive and contemptuous. For instance, when I told him that AOL had never informed me about these charges that weren't paying, he said, "Of course we did. We sent you emails to your AOL account." "But I cancelled my AOL account." "Not according to our records." "Okay, I called and cancelled my AOL account and believed from that point onwards that I had no AOL account." "That's not our problem, sir." And so on. Here's the thing: the representative was aggressive at me for about 15 minutes before he told me about how to handle a biling dispute (there's a special process). "Why didn't you tell me this 15 minutes ago when I told you I was disputing this bill." "This isn't customer service. This is collections."

It really looks like a scam to me.
 

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