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Citizens Advice reveals consumers spend an average of £160 on unwanted subscriptions during National Consumer Week

Posted 27/11/17

New analysis shows that in three months consumers paid an average of £160 towards unwanted subscriptions like gym memberships, television, insurance and online streaming services. 

With the rise of subscription services available to consumers, Citizens Advice is warning consumers that while it may be easy to sign up for these services, they can be difficult to get out of. 

An analysis of cases to the Citizens Advice consumer service between June and August 2017, shows 9 in 10 people were initially refused by the company when they tried to cancel their subscription. People are tying themselves into contracts for subscriptions and are struggling to deal with the company’s terms and conditions to cancel, all the while paying out of pocket. 

As part of National Consumer Week, Citizens Advice and the Consumer Protection Partnership are urging consumers to be aware of the terms and conditions of any contract before agreeing to recurring payments and companies to act responsibly when customers want to end their services. 

Companies refused cancellations by asking for more notice - stretching to six months in some cases - or telling people they needed to cancel through a specific route, such as phone or email. One person who contacted the Citizens Advice consumer service said they tried to cancel a subscription after they were made redundant at work only to be asked for proof from their employer - including a P45. 

Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015, businesses can’t enforce terms on consumers that are unfair. 

Most payments are thought to be through a Continuous Payment Authority, where companies have the ability to change the date or amount of a payment without giving advanced notice. 

Consumers told the consumer service they felt it was unclear they were being signed up to a recurring payment in the first place or that the contract may continue on an auto renewal basis. 

One person said they felt “tricked” into signing up to a free trial of Amazon Prime, found it very difficult to cancel and contacted Citizens Advice consumer service for help. 

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“Subscriptions are very easy to sign up to but can be difficult for consumers to get out of. We know people are wasting time and energy trying to cancel subscriptions while paying out of pocket.
“As part of National Consumer Week, we want to make sure consumers are aware of the terms and conditions of any subscription before they sign up and companies act responsibly when customers want to end their services.”

Consumer Minister Margot James said:

“The UK’s consumer protection regime is one of the strongest in the world, but there is always more to do to tackle the issues that could cause the greatest harm.

“With 40 million people in the UK now subscribing to at least one product or service, today’s campaign from Citizens Advice will help ensure consumers can shop with confidence and know what their rights are should things go wrong.” 

Guy Parker, Chief Executive of Advertising Standards Authority, said:

“Promotions which encourage people to sign-up to ongoing payments must be upfront and clear about what exactly they’re agreeing to. Burying key information in the terms and conditions can be misleading and unfair and risks leaving consumers out of pocket. We support National Consumer Week and are reminding people to ensure they understand fully the extent and nature, as well as the financial commitment, of a subscription offer before signing up to it.” 

Leon Livermore, Chief Executive of Chartered Trading Standards Institute said:

"Knowing your rights allows for better informed decisions. Consumers should consider those whenever they subscribe to a new offering. If it sounds too good to be true, it generally is. Subscriptions and subscription traps affect millions in the UK. National Consumer Week offers trading standards the chance to actively engage with consumers on a local and national level, and is a first step to combating detriment and ensuring consumer protection.

“We’re also eagerly awaiting the Government’s upcoming green paper that sets out their vision for consumer protection in a post-Brexit landscape. We will continue to work actively with our partners at the CPP to build a safer future for UK consumers.” 

Andy Allen, service director at the UK European Consumer Centre, said: “Subscriptions and subscription traps are not just issues which exist in the UK; they are right throughout Europe. National Consumer Week offers the chance to ensure that UK consumers are made aware that they are not alone if they face problems with traders in a European country outside the UK. The UK European Consumer Centre provides free advice and support.” 

During National Consumer Week, Citizens Advice is warning about the importance of making sure you read the terms and conditions before signing up to a contract, and is sharing tips on how people can complete a subscription cancellation if they run into difficulty. 

Need to know tips about subscriptions: 

Check what your cancellation rights are

Each supplier can set their own cancellation policy and they don’t need to offer you a right to cancel your subscription early. Make sure the terms and conditions look reasonable before signing up. 

Remember you’ve got a cooling off period if you buy online

If you bought the subscription online, the law says you usually have 14 days to get your money back if you change your mind. However, you might not be able to get a refund if you start using the service straight away. 

Follow the cancellation policy

Make sure you follow the cancellation policy set out in your contract when you’re ready to end your subscription. Don’t stop your payment without checking what else is required first - otherwise your subscription may not be cancelled and you could be liable for any missed payments. 

Challenge unfair T&Cs

There are no strict definitions for what counts as an unfair policy. But if you’re finding it tough or have to give a long period of notice to cancel a subscription, contact the supplier’s customer services department. If this fails go to the supplier’s trade or complaints body or report to Trading Standards via the Citizens Advice consumer service. 

Notes to editors:

  1. Citizens Advice carried out analysis on 586 subscription problems reported to the Consumer Service between 1 June and 31 August 2017.
  2. Formed in April 2012, the Consumer Protection Partnership brings together key partners within the consumer landscape to better identify, prioritise and coordinate collective action to tackle those issues causing greatest harm to consumers.
  3. The Citizens Advice service is a network of around 300 independent local charities across England and Wales, the Citizens Advice consumer service and national charity Citizens Advice. Together we help people resolve their money, legal and other problems by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers. For more see the Citizens Advice website.
  4. Citizens Advice provides free, confidential and independent advice to help people overcome their problems.
  5. The advice provided by the Citizens Advice service is free, independent, confidential, and impartial, and available to everyone regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality.
  6. To find your local Citizens Advice in England and Wales or to get advice online, visit citizensadvice.org.uk
  7. Last year we helped over 2.7 million people face to face, by phone, email or web chat.
  8. People sought our help with 6.2 million issues in the last year. For full service statistics see our monthly publication Advice trends.
  9. Citizens Advice services are provided by 23,000 trained volunteers and 7,200 paid staff.

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