If you’ve ever signed up for a trial of Amazon Prime, Instacart or Bumble Boost, then you probably know that the best things in life are usually only free for a limited time—typically anywhere from a week to a month after you enter your credit card digits. But by then, you may have forgotten you signed up or worse, can’t find the instructions for how to cancel in time.
That mistake is one of the most common ways people get looped into so-called “subscription traps.” Americans reported some $5.7 million in these losses to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center in 2017, and complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about them doubled from 2015 to 2017. With food delivery service Postmates’ Unlimited service, for example, you’ll be slapped with a charge of up to $96 if you selected the annual membership option when you signed up (and you have to pick a membership option to get the trial).
Mastercard recently took a step in the right direction earlier this month when it announced a new policy that requires merchants to get explicit consent before they start billing for some trials, but it doesn’t cover all trials and only works if you pay with a Mastercard (more on the details below). So you still need to remain vigilant to avoid an unexpected charge on your credit card.
Here’s how to save money and avoid getting charged after signing up for a free trial ever again:
1. Cancel payment and still enjoy the freebie
If you cancel Amazon Prime right after you sign up for the 30-day trial, you can still use it for the full trial period without being billed. Same with CBS All Access, ESPN+, and Spotify. This is the best way to make sure you never get billed.
Not all free trials work that way. Some services end your free trial as soon as you cancel, even if you are only a few days into them. Hulu’s terms of service state, for example, “If you cancel your subscription during a free trial or while using a promotional code or other credits, cancellation may be effective immediately.” Same with Apple Music, whose terms state: “If you cancel during your trial period, you’ll lose access to the catalog and features of Apple Music immediately.”
If you can’t cancel right away without losing extra days on your free trial, you’ve still got options, though ...
2. Set a reminder for the day before
Whatever you do, don’t wait until the very last second to cancel your subscription. For one thing, it may take you a minute to find the cancellation instructions, which can put you past the deadline.
The larger problem, however, is that many services will still charge you if you cancel less than 24 hours before your free trial ends.
Apple Music states, for example:
Same for Bumble Boost:
How to avoid this trap? Set a reminder on your phone or calendar for two days before your trial ends to make sure you don’t get billed.
Finding where exactly to cancel can be tricky too. In many cases you need to go into Google Play or the iTunes store to do it, which involves a number of steps. Cancelling an app through the iTunes Store is a 10-step process, for example. To avoid pulling your hair out trying to find the instructions at the last minute, it’s wise to screenshot them—as well as a customer support number or email address—as soon as you sign up for the trial. That will help you work out any problems faster in case you have a problem with cancelling.
3. Use a Mastercard for certain kinds of trials
Starting April 12, 2019, after you sign up for a free trial using a Mastercard for a physical item like Graze snacks, Curology skincare and Gwynnie Bee clothing, merchants will be required to get your consent before they start billing you. It’s important to note, however, that these new rules do not apply to digital services like Netflix, HBO Now or premium versions of online dating apps.
Asked why the policy only applies to real goods as opposed to digital subscription services, Mastercard spokesperson Chaiti Sen told The Verge, “There’s a lot of fuzziness in health care products, skin care products, vitamins... those physical products are where we’re seeing the most complaints.”
4. Go virtual
If you forget to cancel a subscription before the end of your free trial period, you’ll never get charged if you use a virtual credit card. These work by randomly generating temporary card numbers that expire when you want. Bank of America, Capital One, and Citi all offer them, as well as several prepaid cards, including Skrill and Divvy. Because the numbers are temporary, you’re at less risk in case of a data breach months or years later. The only downside is that just because your card won’t work anymore that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook for the bill, should the merchant try to track you down.
5. Pick up the phone
Never underestimate the power of a personal appeal. If you thought you cancelled but forgot or were in a no-cell service and your request never went through, ask a customer service rep to help you out. Just remember to be polite, since yelling at someone is rarely an effective way to win them over.