It was my infatuation with Baby Yoda on “The Mandalorian” that prompted me to sign up for Disney+ shortly after the service launched in late 2019. Then, last summer, after binge-watching almost everything on Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, I added Acorn TV and BritBox to my streaming arsenal.
And I wanted to learn a new skill, so I subscribed to three video-editing software programs. Then there was that online e-card service I signed up for, so I didn’t have to worry about any birthday or anniversary wishes getting lost or delayed in the mail.
Now, I’m realizing my subscription lifestyle has me buried in recurring monthly charges and auto-renewals. I want to pare back, but honestly, I don’t recall when each one renews and/or whether they’re set to auto-renew. I’m not alone.
“When I was in the classroom full time, I subscribed to Gwynnie Bee, a clothing rental outlet online, which sent me a new, curated outfit each week,” says Carla Bevins, an assistant teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “When the pandemic struck, I didn’t need dress pants to teach remotely, but I was a bit frazzled as to how to stop the subscription.”
My pal Ken Budd, a writer and editor in Burke, Virginia, recently told me that he signed up for ESPN+ to watch the basketball games of his alma mater, George Mason University. A month-to-month subscription was straightforward enough through Amazon Prime, and at season’s end, he canceled. Then, when he wanted to watch a documentary on ESPN+, he re-upped, figuring he could pay for one month and that would be that. He was wrong.
“The next thing I know, I’m notified that I’ve been automatically charged for another month. I was surprised that they put me under auto-renew, because my prior subscription had been month-to-month,” he says. The charge was $5.99, and although he didn’t dispute it, he still had a hard time finding information about how to switch from auto-renew to month-to-month online. “It was irritating and soured me on using Amazon,” he says. His lesson: “Don’t assume. That was my mistake.”
Michal Strahilevitz, a marketing professor at St. Mary’s College of California, says that in almost every case, it’s easier to sign up than it is to cancel. “Companies say auto-renew is ‘in your best interest,’ but in reality, it is good for them,” she says. “Some brands make it difficult on purpose, which, in this era of social media, is insane, because when people are mad, they talk more about the experience than if it is good.”
Breaking up shouldn’t be this hard to do. Here are some tips for canceling auto-renew or recurring payments.
Start when you sign up. Always assume you won’t renew. Turn off the auto-renewal option when you subscribe and are logged into the system. If you don’t, you are more likely to forget about it until you get a bill, Strahilevitz says. If you opt out of auto-renewal, the company will need to contact you before charging your credit card. At sign-up is also the time to read the fine print. What happens after the initial sign-up period? For example, maybe the first six months cost $3 per month, then the rate increases to $30 per month. If so, you may want to make a note to cancel before the increase.
Keep track of your subscriptions. For smartphone-savvy consumers, Bevins suggests an app to help you stay on top of free trials and recurring charges. She uses DoNotPay and TrackMySubs, but there are others. Simply input your information, and the app lets you know when your payment is due or reminds you to cancel before you’re charged. You can also create a chart or list with your username, password, how you signed up (direct, Internet provider, third party) and how you can cancel each service.
Search online. It should be easy to cancel a recurring service or subscription. Start on a site’s homepage. The “unsubscribe” option is usually buried at the bottom. However, it isn’t always where you’d expect it to be. On Amazon Prime, for example, you must go to your profile, then to Memberships & Subscriptions. Strahilevitz says she wanted to stop her barely used Instacart service, but she couldn’t find out how to cancel on the company’s website. During our phone interview, I searched for “How to cancel my Instacart subscription,” then talked her through the steps. Instead of calling me, you can simply substitute the service you’re trying to cancel for Instacart in your search.
Hop on the phone. It may sound old-fashioned, but sometimes calling customer service is your easiest way out. That’s the route Bevins took to cancel Gwynnie Bee. Her advice: Have all your information handy, including the date you joined, your account number and perhaps a copy of any correspondence through online chat or email. Tell them you tried unsuccessfully to cancel online. Realize you may have to go through several people. Be polite and professional — but be firm. Understand that the company will try to get you to stay by dangling some enticements, such as several free months or a substantial discount. Be willing to say repeatedly: “My situation has changed. I love it, but it’s not meeting my current needs.”
Beware of scams. Fred Altberger nearly lost $2,200 in a subscription-renewal scam. The Denver-based operations manager was caught off guard when he received a phone call about six weeks before his sophisticated Intuit QuickBooks Enterprise accounting program was due to renew. “They had my name, phone number, account and software license numbers. I even asked for their phone number, called back and they answered ‘QuickBooks,’ ” he says. The caller warned Altberger that he had to pay his renewal fee ($2,200) by check immediately, or his account would be shut down.
Worried that his data would be lost, Altberger complied, but after mailing payment, he also emailed Intuit’s president. Within hours, the company’s fraud department responded. He had been scammed. In addition to stopping payment on the check, Altberger had to close his checking account. Legitimate companies do not call you about renewals, Bevins says. “Never give payment over the phone. Even if the request seems legit, just say, ‘I don’t do business over the phone. Please mail me a letter or send me an email.’ “
If all else fails, turn to your credit card company. If possible, make recurring payments with a credit card. That way, if you try to cancel but keep getting billed, you can contact your credit card provider and ask the company to not only decline the charge, but also to serve as an intermediary between you and the service. The provider can even help reverse transactions if you are taken advantage of, Bevins says.
Then there is what I call the “nuclear option,” suggested to me by Joe Babi in Troy, Michigan. Report your credit card as lost. “This ensures that your card number will be changed and any recurring charges won’t come through,” he wrote in an email. “Then, the subscription provider emails that payment has failed and you can decide if you want the service or not.”