The New York Times
By RON LIEBER JAN. 29, 2016
If you want newly invented ice cream flavors to show up at your home each month, you can get a subscription for that.
Ditto for toilet paper, clothing and, in some parts of California, marijuana. Charities, music services and, yes, newspapers, are also happy to regularly bill your credit card.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that a service has popped up that can help you quickly cut off these subscriptions. And which companies are consumers most likely to remove from their monthly statements? Credit monitoring services from Experian and TransUnion, gym memberships at Planet Fitness and the monthly Internet-on-the-airplane offering from Gogo are highest on the cancellation list.
Even the sick people like me who actually enjoy reading their credit and debit card statements each month would probably be surprised to see the total amount of recurring charges that they owe each month. When Trim, the company that offers the cancellation service and provided the popularity figures in this column, put me through its paces, it found nine line items (not including utilities like cable, gas and electric). That represented a monthly amount well into the three digits, and we immediately canceled two of them.
If you want to run your own numbers, you have to be willing to hand over your credit and debit card login information, so Trim can scan your statements. The company’s security explainer is plain-spoken, and the company will let you send in copies of your bills if you still don’t want to part with your credentials.
Once Trim performs its analysis, you get a text message with a list of all your recurring charges. You reply with “Cancel X,” and then the company takes it from there, making the request on your behalf to the service provider. Trim follows up for more information (say, your billing address) if it needs it.
It can’t fulfill all requests. LifeLock, Equifax, Xbox Live, SoundCloud, Quicken and Dropbox generally want to hear directly from customers, sometimes because they want more information than Trim is willing to ask of its own customers. For instance, Trim does not ask for or wish to handle Social Security numbers.
Trim does not charge for its service, and the company does not intend to sell any data. Instead, it wants to gather a customer base for a sort of personal finance assistant that could do everything from nudging you to save in the most tax-efficient account to helping you refinance a mortgage or switching you to a better insurance provider. And yes, it may charge a subscription fee for a premium version of this service, presumably one that is transparent and easy to cancel.
Bills for Services You May Not Need
A newly available free service called Trim automatically searches users’ bank statements for recurring charges or subcriptions that the user may have unwittingly signed up for, or no longer needs. Trim can then cancel unwanted subscriptions at the user’s request.
I offer no predictions on whether Trim will succeed in that, but its list of least popular companies serves as a good warning for consumers who hate not getting what they are paying for or paying for things that they are not getting.
Up at the top of the list, or the bottom depending on how you look at it, is Experian. The company, which sells credit reports and various monitoring products through websites like freecreditreport.com, found itself the subject of cancellation requests 35.8 percent of the time it showed up on Trim’s customers’ statements.
Experian has a long history of regulatory entanglements, and for years, its customers have complained that their request for a “free” credit report ended with paid subscriptions that they did not want. (For the record, the best place to go for a truly free credit report is annualcreditreport.com.)
“I’d be surprised if Experian wasn’t on top of the list,” said David C. Vladeck, a Georgetown law professor who kept an eye on the company for four years as the director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, part of the Federal Trade Commission. “The billing on your card is designed to look innocuous, and the charges are never substantial.”
Recently, Experian’s consumer revenue in North America has been falling. “During 2015,” it said in its annual report, “the number of U.S. class-action lawsuits increased, while the cost of individual consumer litigation continues to rise year on year. This is attributable to greater consumer awareness and to heightened media coverage of the U.S. consumer bureau business.”
As for the churn that Trim inspired with its text-message alerts, a spokesman for Experian passed on feedback from Guy Abramo, president of its consumer services unit, noting that many people use the company’s services to track their credit profile in the crucial months before buying a car or home. So it’s only natural that those people would want to cancel once their transaction was complete. Many of them eventually resubscribe, according to Experian. A TransUnion spokesman declined to address its churn and the company’s third-place spot on Trim’s list.
Trim’s founders find the cancellation process for health clubs to be particularly noxious. They often have to send registered mail to the companies to fulfill their customers’ requests. A Planet Fitness spokesman said it did not have anyone available to comment on its 30.4 percent cancellation rate.
Gogo Air is no stranger to cancellation controversies. It was the subject of a class-action suit in 2014 accusing it of enrolling people in monthly subscriptions without their knowledge or adequate notice. The suit was recently settled. Did you (like me) find yourself with an accidental subscription at any point in the last four years? If so, check the website about the suit to see whether you’re eligible for the free passes Gogo has offered as part of the settlement.
The company does not allow subscribers to cancel by simply pushing a button. Instead, it requires an interaction of some sort, which I find obnoxious but a company spokesman described as “faster and more convenient” since you don’t need login credentials to, say, engage in an online chat with a customer service representative.
Trim’s co-founder, Thomas Smyth, noted that Gogo did not give Trim too much trouble when it reached out on behalf of its customers. Trim has more challenges with Experian, where the procedure seems to change every few weeks.
Mr. Smyth also admitted begrudging admiration for how Gogo uses a keen understanding of behavioral economics to hook so many people. “The per-month rate is often not that much more than the per-day or per-flight rate,” he said. “So you look at it and say ‘I’m going to be a winner. I’m smarter than these guys!’” And then you forget to cancel. For months.
As for my employer, cancellation rates on its subscriptions came in at 10.3 percent, above the 7 percent median for all of the companies Trim found 50 or more times on customers’ bills. The Wall Street Journal’s rate was 8.1 percent.
None of your subscriptions will bankrupt you, though taken — and canceled — together and diverted to savings, they may add up to a decent chunk of a vacation budget.
But the growing list of subscriptions is yet another reminder of just how much complication can come with convenience. It is often easier to start a recurring service than end it, and even when you spot the $9.99 a month, you may not want to put the $9.99 (or more) of effort required into getting rid of it. Which is exactly what these companies want you to think.
So keep a close eye on your card statements. And if credit reporting companies, health clubs or Internet providers have their claws in your plastic, reread those bills, each and every month. There’s a decent chance that you have something better to do with the money that they are regularly helping themselves to.