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It’s Your Money: Subscription Canceling is Not Easy

Published Friday Jun 21, 2024

Author Maureen Milliken, Ink Link Biz

It’s Your Money: Subscription Canceling is Not Easy

NEWS: The Federal Trade Commission this week announced it’s taking action against software maker Adobe for deceiving consumers by hiding the early termination fee for its most popular subscription plan and making it difficult for consumers to cancel their subscriptions.

WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU: You may not have an Adobe subscription, but you probably have struggled with trying to cancel an unwanted subscription or being surprised by fees for a canceled one.

I decided to cancel my membership with a gym last week as a money-saving move. I figured it would be easy, since it was so easy to join. But after fumbling around on the app for several minutes, including the “manage membership” section, it still wasn’t clear how to cancel. I finally determined that if I wanted to cancel my membership, I have to either call or go in and talk to someone. Great! Time I don’t have to call someone who’ll likely try to talk me into not canceling.

Also last week, I was hit with a $49 annual charge from a retail store’s “loyalty club.” I no longer live near this store, haven’t shopped there in years, and am positive that last year when the same thing happened, that I canceled my auto renewal. I guess it somehow popped back to “yes.” Lucky for me, unlucky for them, the card attached had expired and the charge didn’t go through. I removed the card and once again canceled auto-renewal. Even so, I still can’t find on the website how to quit the club.

I briefly subscribed to a newspaper 3,000 miles away to get information for a project last year, but after several months of monthly charges that I’d forgotten were coming sat down right then and there to cancel the subscription. It had been so easy to subscribe. One or two clicks online. Unsubscribing, though, meant calling their customer service line, being on hold for 15 minutes, then trying to explain to someone why I didn’t need the subscription.

Closer to home, I discovered last month I had two subscriptions for the same local newspaper. One payment was quarterly, one was monthly. Shame on them for not noticing someone with the same email address had a subscription to the product twice. I’m not sure how it happened. It took me about twenty minutes to cancel both.

I was trying to cancel another online service and couldn’t find cancelation terms, so I decided I’d at least unlink my debit card. It wouldn’t let me do it unless I attached another card. I had to call customer service, where I spent nearly half an hour on hold, before talking to someone who could cancel my subscription.

Before all of those adventures in subscription canceling, I knew that canceling subscriptions was a giant pain. When a service or business makes it easy to unsubscribe or cancel, I’m pitifully grateful.

Whenever I’m caught in a subscription-canceling death spiral, I usually say – either to one of my cats or in a text to my sister or on social media – “There should be a law that companies have to make it as easy to unsubscribe as they do to subscribe!” Usually with some profanities laced in, but you get the gist.

Apparently, someone was listening, because last year the FTC proposed “click to cancel,” a change to its Negative Option Rule that would “require a mechanism [to cancel a subscription or membership] that’s at least as simple and can be initiated using the same method as the charge.”

That was the good news. The bad news is that the Government Accountability Office must send the FTC-approved rule to Congress, which must OK it. If that happens, it could go into effect later this summer. So…yeah. A big “if.”

There ARE laws surrounding subscriptions, but the federal and state governments have yet to force companies to make canceling, or to even enforce the laws they have.

Under the existing FTC Negative Option Rule, companies have to clearly disclose a negative option program – that’s when you have to opt out if you don’t want automatic renewal, otherwise you’re in. They also have to get your informed consent before you enroll in it.

On top of that, it’s a violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act for a company to “require consumers to jump through complicated hoops to cancel subscription products or services, such as being forced to talk to customer service agents repeatedly, or for unreasonably long times, before granting a request to cancel.”

Those issues are the crux of the Adobe case. They led consumers to their subscription plan, automatically checking it as an option, but didn’t disclose that if you canceled early, you’d be charged up to 50% of the yearly cost. They not only made it hard to cancel, but once people figured it out, they got dinged with a big bill.

Even though Adobe got busted, the existing laws are vague enough that a lot of companies manage to comply while still being consumer-unfriendly.

The laws also fall short, not addressing the two biggest issues I’ve found many times as I’ve tried to unsubscribe:

Why can’t I easily find on the website how to cancel my subscription?

Why do I have to talk to a customer service agent when I didn’t have to when I subscribed?

Meanwhile, in this column, and consumer columns all across the U.S., we urge people who want to cut down on expenses to cancel unwanted subscriptions. I always feel guilty giving that advice, because I know how hard it’s going to be.

It would be great if the proposed FTC “click to cancel” rule goes into effect. But that doesn’t help you today. With that in mind, let’s look at some tips that can make dealing with subscriptions easier.

  1. Keep track of subscriptions from the start. Or at least starting now. This may be a no-brainer for some people. Not for me, unless no-brainer means no brain was used. “Oh, that show is on Max? I think I’ll subscribe to Max for a month to watch it!” Months later, I was still paying for Max, watching it sporadically, and vowing to unsubscribe every time I was charged.

I don’t have cable, so I rely on streaming. I have Roku on my TV and Hulu Live is my go-to cable replacement, since it has essentials like local news and the local channel that carries “Jeopardy!” I still subscribe to other streaming services, with the intention to watch what I want, cancel after a month and move on to another one. A great plan if you stick to it. I didn’t.

Streaming services, which I’ve found are the easiest things to cancel, were hard to keep track of since I was subscribing through Roku, Apple on my phone, or through the service itself. I had charges popping up all over the place. It was like whack-a-mole. I finally sat down and went through every possible place, my debit and credit counts to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and canceled everything but Hulu Live. It took more than an hour.

Streaming is just part of it. For my work as a writer and a podcaster, I have all sorts of monthly bills for things like Microsoft, Adobe, websites, website protection, website services, newspapers, – you name it.

I recently created a Google doc that lists all of my subscriptions, the cost, what card is charged and the date the charge renews. I check this sheet when I do my monthly budget and make sure I know what’s going to be charged that month. That exercise also made me take a serious look at subscriptions and the cost, which led to getting rid of some that I’d been hanging on to without really using.

You don’t have to use a Google doc, but doing this in a way that is easy for you and makes sense will be a big step in the right direction. This tip doesn’t help with the cancelation issue, but it does help put you in control of subscriptions.

  1. Do your homework before opting for apps that will do it for you. You’ve probably heard or seen ads for Rocket Money, complete with testimonials from people gushing about how it canceled their subscriptions for them, saving them tons of money. I’m sure it did, but at a cost. If you get the free, basic Rocket Money app, it will show you your subscription accounts based on the financial accounts you link to the app. If you want it to cancel subscriptions, you must upgrade to paid “subscription concierge” service. Even then, it won’t cancel subscriptions that you have to call and talk to customer service to cancel, or other difficult ones. It cancels the ones that you can easily cancel yourself. If you think it’s worth it, go for it. But if your goal is to save money, don’t pay for a service that you can do for free in the same amount of time it’ll take you to sign up. 

There’s also a psychological pitfall to apps that make budgeting and managing money “easy.” They do your thinking for you, but shouldn’t you be the one thinking about all this and making critical decisions about your money? The less thinking you do, the less control you have. It wasn’t until I went through all my subscriptions myself and put them in order, including cost, card and renewal date that I made tough decisions that I’d been rationalizing up until then. I know managing money is a lot of work. I KNOW! But it’s very important work, crucial to you living the kind of life you want to live, and that means you should be the one doing it.

  1. Read the fine print. I know this tip is likely too late for your subscription-canceling woes, but it’ll save you in the future. Before subscribing to any service with recurring payments, instead of just clicking the box that says you’ve read the terms of service, actually read them. Or at least understand what you’ll be paying and what fees will be charged if you cancel. Most importantly, check out the website or app to see how you cancel and if it’s clear. Then wait a few days. See next tip for more.

  2. Set a cool-down rule. I’ve instituted a mandatory cool down period in my house for any purchases that aren’t necessities. It’s a new thing and we’re still getting used to (we being me and my cats). This cool-down includes streaming services. If that true-crime documentary I’ve been dying to see drops Tuesday on a service I don’t have, it’ll still be there when the service fits into my budget. 

If you’re making a spontaneous decision to buy something, you may totally forget you bought it. When it has a recurring charge, that can end up being a costly and annoying decision.

In both journalism, writing and podcasting careers, this comes up a lot, particularly when I want to read an article for research. I worked for daily newspapers from 1983 to 2016, and so I fully understand the need for paywalls. We sure as hell weren’t giving copies away for free back in the pre-digital days. [And a shoutout to Ink Link which is always free!] But it’s still frustrating when I need to read an article from a publication and a paywall pops up. For crying out loud, give me one for free. In any case, I often fell for the cheap offer subscription, just so I could read that article. I’d vow to cancel before the subscription came back up a month later, then forgot all about it until it showed up in my bank account. Newspaper subscriptions are notoriously hard to cancel, particularly smaller local papers. You often have to call someone who can’t fathom why someone in Maine doesn’t want to read a digital copy daily of a newspaper in Arkansas. [Someone in customer service at a West Coast paper actually said to me “I didn’t know Maine was a state.” But that’s a column for another day.]

I’ve stopped subscribing every time I want to read something. Instead, I continue with my research and either forget about the article or find the information somewhere else. The world keeps on turning, we all have lunch, and I’ve saved some money.

Waiting is always good, particularly if it’s for something that will continue to cost you money you don’t want to spend.

  1. Suck it up and do the work. Many states have broad laws that govern subscription auto-renewals and cancellations, including my state of Maine. Obviously, if you’ve read this far, it hasn’t done me a lot of good. 

In New Hampshire, the law is specific towards gyms and health clubs, buying clubs and martial arts schools. The laws for those three types of businesses set down disclosure requirements and terms of cancelation, but you still have to do the work to cancel.

If you’re frustrated because cancelation means talking to someone in person, I get that. But you have to make the choice – do I go through the discomfort, time suck and/or annoyance of talking to someone in person, or do I keep up the monthly torture of seeing that money come out of my account? It’s up to you.

On the front end, you may want to be sure that you say no to auto-renewal, though this will mean manually renewing every month. That may be a bother for a service you really want, but worst-case scenario? You save money.

As with almost everything related to managing money and building a strong financial foundation, there is no easy workaround. If you don’t want to pay, do the work to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Scam of the Month

There has been a recent run of towns and cities being ripped off by scammers who take advantage of the fact that even the smallest towns sometimes have projects going on that involve big bills.

It’s easy to look at those as being someone else’s issue, nothing to do with you, but take another look. The specifics of the scams may be unique to municipal governments or businesses, but the way they get in is universal.

It was reported earlier this month that Orange, Massachusetts, got defrauded of $338,000. It’s being investigated by the police chief and FBI. 

The town is involved in a construction project, and when invoices started rolling in by email to the tune of $800,000, the town’s staff paid them. When a new town manager took office last fall, he discovered the emails were not from a vendor related to the project but were frauds.

A similar scam also took place in Arlington, Massachusetts. According to Town Manager Jim Feeney earlier this month, a business email compromise scam “used phishing, spoofing, social engineering, and compromised email accounts to ultimately facilitate wire fraud totaling $445,945.73.”

A business email compromise – BEC in FBI lingo – targets businesses that regularly pay supplier or vendors through wire transfers or checks. The scammers gain access by comprising email accounts or other forms of communication, such as phone numbers or virtual meeting applications. The scammers usually immediately convert the stolen money to cryptocurrency. The victims will never get it back.

Arlington is in the midst of a five-year, $240 million high school building project. Scammers impersonated a vendor, making four payments before the scam was discovered.

How did it happen? The town had already gotten emails from the legitimate vendor about payment processing. The scammers hacked into the system through employee email accounts and were monitoring this correspondence.

Then, through an email domain designed to look like it was from the legitimate vendor, the scammers asked that the payment method be switched from check to electronic funds transfer.

The scam was discovered when the legitimate vendor notified the town it hadn’t received any payments. The town was able to recover just about $6,000 of the nearly half-million it had lost.

It doesn’t just happen in Massachusetts. Check out the internet – towns across the U.S. have fallen for the same trick.

In New Hampshire in 2021, the town of Peterborough was scammed out of $1.2 million through fraudulent emails posing as ConVal School District staff that diverted the town’s monthly payment, which was supposed to go to the district, to the scammers.

“They were incredibly sophisticated forgeries,” Town Administrator Nicole MacStay told reporters at the time. “You would have to look much closer than anyone would normally look at an email to see that they were in fact forgeries. They really understand how these transactions worked and took the time to understand how we worked with the school district and the vendor to be able to divert the funds the way they did.”

The FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) in its 2023 Internet Crime Report, which was released in April, said the FBI received 880,418 complaints of such business scams, with potential losses exceeding $12.5 billion. That’s nearly a 10% increase in complaints and a 22% increase in losses compared to 2022. New Hampshire businesses reported $6,995,441 in losses through business email compromise in 2023.

Back to what this means to you. The first point of entry for many scams is through email or some other digital means. Scammers have become particularly good at making email or other forms of entry look real.

Clicking on scam emails not only puts businesses at risk, but individuals as well. It’s easy to be fooled. In previous columns and Ink Link articles, we’ve gone over how scammers have perfected phony invoices. I get several a week in my email. They want you to call the number on the fake invoice and say “Wait! I didn’t order $435 worth of Norton computer protection!” They’ll say, “Gee, let’s look into that.” Then they lead you on a merry journey through your accounts and before you know it you’re giving them information that will allow them to drain you of all your money.

My number one red flag tip: These are often from gmail addresses and if you look at the other recipients, you’ll see dozens, even hundreds. Norton, PayPal, Best Buy, Staples, are not going to email you from a personal gmail address about an invoice and copy a bunch of other people on it. Ever.

Aside from the phony invoices, the FTC says, “Phishing emails and text messages often tell a story to trick you into clicking on a link or opening an attachment. You might get an unexpected email or text message that looks like it’s from a company you know or trust, like a bank or a credit card or utility company. Or maybe it’s from an online payment website or app.”

The FTC says red flags are emails that:

  • Say they’ve noticed some suspicious activity or log-in attempts — they haven’t
  • Claim there’s a problem with your account or your payment information — there isn’t
  • Say you need to confirm some personal or financial information — you don’t
  • Include an invoice you don’t recognize — it’s fake
  • Want you to click on a link to make a payment — but the link has malware
  • Say you’re eligible to register for a government refund — it’s a scam
  • Offer a coupon for free stuff — it’s not real.

If you’ve fallen for a scam, don’t be embarrassed and don’t keep it to yourself. Call your local law enforcement and report it [even if they seem confused or dismissive, which in 2024, they shouldn’t.] AARP has an online fraud helpline with resources that you don’t have to be a member, or even over 50, to access. The FTC also has resources and a reporting page.

Anyone can get scammed. Anyone. Even you. Use common sense and think proactively.

Reach Maureen Milliken at

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit 

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