The perils of the online subscription model

online subscription modelI am a fan of the online subscription model, in theory—I subscribe to, and enjoy, the streaming Netflix service, and I have paid in the past for the pro versions of services such as Dropbox and Evernote. But I learned an important lesson this week about the perils of the subscription model, and the lesson is this—be vigilant, because they can’t un-have your data once you give it to them.

Here is what happened—-I subscribed last year to the Toronto Star eReads service, and for a time enjoyed their weekly ebook story. But after a few months, they erected a paywall which vastly reduced my visits to the website. And I found that after that, my interest in the e-series diminished. I fell behind, found myself with piles of ebooks I felt obliged to slog through because I had paid for them, and felt as well that I would have preferred an a la carte payment plan. Some of the titles did not interest me at all. Some of them seemed like they would, but were written by a writer I loathed from the paper. I just didn’t want it anymore.

So I cancelled, and didn’t give it a second thought. Then, a few weeks ago, I got one of their weekly subscriber emails, with a link to the book and everything. I chalked it up to a random error and didn’t think anymore about it at first. But then I double-checked my credit card statement and found that they had actually been billing me for the last three months!

I had not noticed it at first because, other than that one email, I had not gotten any others. And the charge was so small that I didn’t catch it right away. I have several accounts (my cell phone, for example) which auto-bill to that credit card, so I just check it every couple of weeks and pay what’s due. I should have been looking more closely.

So, okay, mistakes happen. Somehow, they reactivated my dormant subscription without telling me, and that’s bad, but I was not going to get all up in arms about what could have been an innocent error. And then I phoned them to try and get some help. And…it wasn’t helpful. They could not even begin to help me until I gave them my ‘account number’ and I didn’t have an account number because I wasn’t really a subscriber. After going around on that a little, the frustrated customer service rep suggested that I deal with my credit card company. I called them and they immediately reversed the charges and cancelled the card so I could not be billed again. What a hassle though! Now, I have to change my information for anybody else who I used that card with! Phooey on you, Star.com!

Let this be a lesson to anyone else who subscribes online to anything—keep an eye on your statements and be vigilant!

2 Comments on The perils of the online subscription model

  1. Next they will try to bill your card for next quarter and won’t be able to, because the card is cancelled. They may or may not send you an email before they report you to the credit bureau. You won’t know anything about it until you try to buy a house.

  2. If it’s available in Canada, you might want to look into something like Abine’s suite of privacy services, which among other things includes a function to generate a unique card number for different sites. Works much the same as any prepaid card you could pick up at the store, but without needing to buy a multitude of cards for different places or pay a fee for each. The card function is part of their Premium service which costs $5 / month, but I’ve found it’s worth it to me after going through the hassle of having my actual credit card numbers stolen twice in 2013. When you cancel a service or an order, you can also deactivate the card you had attached to it, and any unused funds on it will be returned to you.

    The only two downsides with the Abine product I’ve found so far are that 1) you have to use their billing address, which can be a dealbreaker for ordering physical items from some stores since your shipping address won’t be the same, and 2) you need to fund any new card with a minimum of $10. You can still make purchases smaller then $10, then deactivate the card later and get a refund of unused funds, but it seems like more trouble than it needs to be.

    Some banks and certain Amex cards I believe also offer a comparable virtual card feature, and might be superior if they let you attach your own address for billing.

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