The truth about free trials

We handed over our credit card for 40 online trials, to find out the real cost of 'free.'

The offer was tempting: I could read exclusive online articles about my beloved Red Sox on ESPN Insider, for just $44.95 a year. And to be sure that it would be money well spent, I could sign up for a seven-day free trial. I bit, coughing up my credit card number as part of the deal.

Unfortunately, I couldnt get off the hook.

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Finding Red Sox slugger David Ortizs career RBI totals took seconds on ESPN, but trying to learn how to cancel the free ESPN Insider trial was considerably harder. I searched, clicked, and navigated to what felt like every corner of the site, to no avail. Before giving up I sent ESPN customer service a terse email message requesting that my account be canceled. The next day, the day that my free trial expired, my credit card was charged $44.95.

Later I called customer service, and a cheerful woman named Yvonne told me, There is no way to cancel online; you have to call to cancel. Why couldnt I find that out online?

After refusing to refund me 100 percent of my $44.95, she transferred me to a supervisor who reiterated the refund policy and then explained how to find the cancellation policy on ESPN.com. I had tried to unearth a cancellation form by clicking the My Account link, but instead I was supposed to go to Radio and More to see the cancellation policy. Who knew?

Free trials are enticing, but as I learned, they come with strings attached. Back in April, in order to test how consumer-friendly free trials are, I signed up for and attempted to quit 40 free trials that required a credit card number. More than a quarter of the services I tried turned out to be a real hassle to quit.

Three of the sites charged me even though I canceled be­­fore the free trial ended. With two other sites, I wound up with a bill simply because I couldnt figure out how to cancel before the trial expired; I blame this problem on poor website design (in both cases representatives later showed me that it was possible to cancel online). And one site provided no way to quit the free trialonline or offlineso I simply gave up.

The news isnt all bad. Free trials from Hulu and Merriam-Webster, for instance, were a breeze to ditch. Hulu stood out because it offered to remove all [my] personal information from Hulu. At Merriam-Websters site, saying good-bye took three clicks and less than a minute. (For more about the positive experiences I had, see Free Trials We Liked.)

The biggest hassles

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The Truth About Free Trials

In the chart, you can see the 12 services that proved to be the most aggravating when I attempted to quit.

These companies failed on several levels: A few charged me despite my having canceled in time. Nearly all of them made finding cancellation instructions extremely difficult, requiring me to perform extensive sleuthing. Many of them forced me to call the company to complete the cancellation, and threw up technical roadblocks such as nonworking phone numbers and broken links to cancellation pages. Among the somewhat less annoying practices I encountered were high-pressure sales pitches from some companies to make me keep the service, extensive exit interviews, and multiple marketing messages in my inbox even after we had parted ways.

On the other hand, the free trials that were best made it simple to end the trial, providing clear navigation, sparing me the aggressive customer-retention lectures and marketing pitches, and saying thanks for giving them a try.

In all fairness, the hassles I describe here are a matter of subjective opinion. Another person might find spending 10 minutes on the phone tolerable; for me it was highly irritating.

Free trials and tribulations

Days after canceling J2 Globals 30-day free trial of the TrustFax virtual fax service, I spotted an $8.95 charge from the company on my credit card statement. Perplexed, I tried calling TrustFaxs toll-free number to dispute the charge. All I got was a voicemail message: You have reached Verizon conferencing. The number you have dialed is not in use.

The next day I checked the TrustFax site and found that the customer service number had changed. I dialed the new number; within 20 seconds after navigating voice prompts, I was hearing hold music and a looped message saying, Your call is very important to us. Please wait on the line for the next available representative. After 12 minutes, I hung up.

As a test, the next time I called TrustFax, I selected the sales option at the voice prompts, and within 10 seconds a cheerful sales representative was ready to take my orderbut not to cancel my account.

My fourth call to TrustFax was fruitful, though. After I waited on hold for 11 minutes, a representative named Leslie came on the line and said that she would review my account. She confirmed that my account was closed, and apologized for the billing error. She even refunded me the $8.95but not until after she had kept me sitting on the phone for another 17 minutes as she confirmed my billing information, put me on hold, asked me for account information, and put me on hold again. In total I spent about 40 minutes on the phone trying to stop a free trial that had taken merely a few mouse clicks and less than 2 minutes to start.

A spokesperson for TrustFax later apologized, saying that I had been billed erroneously because I had canceled on the last day of the free trial; though the billing had begun the minute my free trial was over, the company's processing of my cancellation request had taken 24 hours.

Technical difficulties

When its quit-or-get-billed time, technical snafus are doubly frustrating. I was surprised to see how many servicessuch as ESPN Insider, FreeCreditScore.com, GameHouse, IMDb Pro, RealPlayer Super Pass, and Spotify Premiumsuffered from technical errors on their sites that made canceling hard.

With Spotify Premium, for example, I ran into a password glitch. When I indicated that I wanted to cancel my Spotify account within the client software, the service-cancellation page loaded in my browser and asked me to resubmit my Spotify password. Because I had been forced to set up my Spotify account with my Facebook credentials, I entered my Facebook password. Spotify rejected that password several times, serving up an Incorrect Password message despite the fact that I had verified it was correct. At this point, I had few options other than to select the 'Forgot your password?' link.

Next, Spotify declared: It looks like you are using your Facebook credentials to log in to Spotify. To change your Facebook password go to your settings page at Facebook.com. After I changed the password using my Google Chrome browser, Spotify still re­­fused to accept my password on its site. I couldnt unsubscribe.

Graham James, a Spotify spokes­person, later told me that I wasnt the only person hit with this bug. He said that a medium-sized group of people was frustrated by this problem earlier this year, and that the glitch had since been corrected. The issue, James said, was that the browser window Spotify spawned for canceling wouldnt accept Facebook passwords. The fix was to open a different browser: If you were using, say, Chrome, you could avoid the problem by opening the same Web page in Internet Explorer.

Next page: Hard to find, hard to cancel

Free trials we liked

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The Truth About Free Trials

Canceling my 14-day free-trial membership to Merriam-Websters Unabridged Dictionary online took only three clicks, allowing me to avoid the $30 annual fee that the service would have charged to my credit card had the trial period expired. My experience in canceling Merriam-Websters free trial was excellent, and stood in sharp contrast to the dozen sites that made cancellation feel like a hunt for a piece of cheese in a maze.

Despite the hair pulling that free trials put me through, several servicesincluding AdaptedMind, Ancestry.com, Britannica Online, Dr. Laura, Hulu Plus, Merriam-Webster, SugarSync, and The Weather Channelproved that it is possible to make parting ways a breeze. (Click the chart above to view it full size.)

What did those sites have in common? Intuitive navigation, clear instructions, and no gotchas after you click the Cancel button. Once I cut ties, these services didnt send me a barrage of commercial email and we want you back pleas.

Hulu Plus goes a step further and offers anyone canceling its service the option to scrub their user data, including credit card information, from its servers.

Making it easy is a choice, not an accident

Many of the services I tested forced me to scour their FAQs for cancellation instructions. Some of the ones I spoke with defended this practice, while others simply played dumb.

Ancestry.com did a great job of steering me to its cancel option in two clicks. All I had to do was visit My Account from the homepage, and on the next screen under the Subscription Options heading was Cancel Subscription.

Some sites blamed me when I couldnt find a cancel option. ESPN Insiders customer service rep told me that I should have known where the cancel option was on the site: Its up to you to read the terms and conditions of something you are purchasing, he said. Later I saw that he was right: The companys Terms and Conditions document states that users need to call to cancel. Even so, though I may be guilty of not having read every terms-of-service agreement at websites, Im not guilty of failing to try hard to cancel the services after the fact.

Companies such as the SugarSync online backup service sent an email reminder several days before the end of the free trial reminding me that I would be billed if I didnt cancel. Sadly, nice touches like this were the exception, not the rule, in my tests.

Im guessing that most services spend a considerable amount of time and money making it easy for visitors to navigate through the site and sign up for services if they choose toand that its probably not by accident that sites also make it hard to cancel their services. But to those sites that make canceling free trials as simple as it is to sign up for them, my compliments.

How to keep free trials free

Who knew that free trials could cost so much? Every day, millions of people get sucked into handing over their credit card numbers for a free trial. After all, signing up for a free trial is simple and quick. Getting out of a free trial is another story, though. Here are some tips for ensuring that your free trials stay free.

  • When you see words such as free trial on a website, alarm bells should ring in your headno matter how credible the site. Take a deep breath before clicking to commit to any such deal, and be sure to read all of the terms and conditions carefully.
  • If the description of the free trial is confusing or vague, the company may be trying to hide something. Skip it!
  • Cant find the Cancel button? Head to the sites FAQ section or to the services terms of service, and look for the keyword cancel by using your browsers search function.
  • Be your own detective. Before signing up for a free trial, try googling the name of the free trial and cant cancel. Chances are, a bad actor will have an online reputation.
  • If you are charged, call the company offering the free trial as soon as possible. Many services I spoke with said that they would give users their money back if it was an honest mistake. Others, such as ESPN, said that they would prorate the refund based on how many days of the paid service had passed.
  • If youre billed for a service that you mistakenly forgot to cancel on time, or that you couldnt cancel after your best efforts, call your credit card company and file a formal claim. Emphasize that youve tried to get your money back from the billing company with no success.
  • Dont shop online with your bank debit card. Credit card companies such as American Express, MasterCard, and Visa are protected under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act. When you dispute a charge on your credit card, you can ask that the credit card company withhold payment while it investigates. You dont have the same protection with a debit card purchase.

This story, "The truth about free trials" was originally published by PCWorld.

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