When you hear these words, run!


You can always cancel.

Those are the four most dangerous words a consumer can hear.

They’re often preceded by: “Don’t worry!”

I saw those words just a minute ago while I was ordering something called Kindle Unlimited on Amazon.com. It promises you access “to over one million titles” in the Kindle Store, including books, audiobooks, and magazines. You can keep up to ten titles to read on any Amazon device or Kindle reading app, and there are no due dates, according to Amazon.

I’d signed up for Kindle Unlimited because my kids wanted it, and there’s really no way to argue against giving your kids access to books. Of course, Amazon doesn’t tell you which million titles it’s giving you access to. Truth is, most of the books on Kindle Unlimited are either in the public domain, or awful, or both. But let’s not get bogged down by details.

My problem? I’d already signed up for Kindle Unlimited a month before. But when I logged in, it wanted me to sign up again. And there was that message: “You can always cancel.”

I’d seen that assurance when I signed up for a 30-day trial account for Amazon Prime. I set a calendar reminder to cancel, but for reasons only Google knows, I wasn’t alerted in time. Amazon didn’t bother to tell me my month was up, so now I’ve bought into their club. Great!

There are no surveys on cancellation terms that are either poorly disclosed or aggressively imposed, but this I know: It tends to happen when you see those four words — you can always cancel.

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Here’s my problem with “You can always cancel.” They take your credit card and hope you’ll forget about it. Then they charge you after a few days or a month, depending on the service. “You can always cancel” is an invitation to relax and worry about the terms of your membership later.

You should not relax.

One of the biggest “you can cancel later” perpetrators is Spirit Airlines, according to my readers. For example, Cathy Dabisch says she “somehow” signed up for Spirit’s $9 Fare Club. Spirit offers a two-month trial for the club, which gives you access to “the ultimate in cost savings,” including discounted fares and cheaper bags.

By the way, the club doesn’t cost $9 a year. It’s $69.


Dabisch says she was blindsided by the charge on her bill. But if she’d read the terms carefully, she would have known about it. She fell for the you-can-always-cancel scheme: “It’s important to know that your trial membership will automatically renew into an annual $9 Fare Club membership (at $69.95) unless you choose to cancel.”

Dabisch contacted Spirit, which agreed to remove the charge. But it didn’t, and then she says the airline changed its contact number for the club. “When I try to call them, I am in a vicious loop and can not speak to any human being,” she says.

Another broad category is the travel club. Gayle Burnett contacted me recently after spending $7,000 on a membership in The Travel Center that promised deep discounts that she probably could have found online.

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“I’m afraid I may have been scammed,” she says.

Had she? I didn’t even have to look at her membership package to answer that one.

Fortunately, Burnett had five days to get out, and she was only halfway through it. Travel clubs like to wait until the end of the rescission period to give new members their passwords. Then they would have only hours to determine the legitimacy of the product, which I can assure you, would lead to only one conclusion.

I recommended Burnett cancel immediately, which she did. And I never heard from her again, so I assume she got a full refund. But many other readers are not so fortunate, and they find themselves holding a worthless travel club membership.

And you can probably imagine the salesman pitching someone like Burnett. “Don’t worry,” he reassured her. “You can always cancel.”

Amazon, Spirit, and a no-name travel club may not have much in common, except this: They tell you not to worry about cancellations because you can always do it later. They want you to do that because you’ll probably forget, just like I did with my Amazon Prime membership.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. You already know the wrong way. The right way is to make the first month’s membership truly free — no strings attached — and ask people to opt in to continue with a paid membership. You don’t take their money until they say it’s OK. Inaction should not be interpreted as acceptance.

The so-called “negative option” is wrong.

But until schemes like this are declared illegal by the courts or lawmakers, the “you can always cancel” schemes will continue. At least we know what to do when we see those dangerous words. Hold on to your wallet.

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Editors note: This is another favorite column from 2017. As we head into the new year, I wonder how many negative options companies will put in front of us?


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Negative-option billing has been going on for as long as I can remember…long before the internet. Anyone remember those mail-order record clubs like Columbia Record House and BMG?

    This was all the rage when I was a teen. You’d get something like a dozen records for a dollar. Sounded like a great deal! You spend hours picking through their list of hundreds of records in the multi-page magazine add, drop the tear-out card with your selections it in the mail, wait for several weeks and then get this huge box filled with awesome music. You figured you’d cancel then, and make out like a bandit.

    Except wait – what’s this in the box? A bill? Yup, the fine print of the contract (which of course you didn’t read) say that you are contracted to buy several more records before you can cancel. So you do that…except now their list of available titles was severely limited. Milli Vanilli anyone? And you had to pay full price plus shipping and handling. So you did that, still thinking you’re ahead of the game and you can still cancel…except now you’re trapped in their “album of the month” club, so you start getting terrible music sent to you with no warning, at uneven intervals (the term “month” was used loosely – more like every 3 weeks) and you have to pay full price plus shipping and handling.

    And canceling wasn’t so easy! Trying to track them down was like a snipe hunt. Eventually you might get your membership canceled, but by then you could have bought twice the number of albums at the local music store for the same amount of money. And you were now saddled with stacks of crappy records like Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, Debbie Boone, the Very Best of Captain & Tennille, and the soundtrack from Vision Quest.

    Same principle.

  • Steve Rabin

    Wasn’t the Very Best of Captain and Tennille a single? :-)

  • LeeAnneClark

    LOL! Yeah they were one-hit wonders, weren’t they? Or maybe two? Muskrat love! (I always thought that was creepy…it made me think of that gopher in Caddyshack…) ;-)

  • AJPeabody

    Same thing now with magazine subscriptions, “trial” issues, and automatic renewals at whatever subscription rate they decide on.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Yup, and sometimes you get signed up for recurring charges without even knowing it! I was looking through my elderly mother’s credit card statements recently, and discovered she was being charged $9.99 per month for some kind of subscription for an “online community” that she never signed up for. She is visually impaired and doesn’t even own a computer, and has no recollection of ever signing up for anything like that. It took a lot of effort to get her off it – the phone number listed wasn’t working, and I could find no contact information. I finally had to dispute the charge through VISA…but it turned out they’d been billing her for over a year and all we were able to do was get the most recent charge reversed, and stop the charges going forward. So that was a hundred bucks out the window. We never did figure out how it even got started.

  • Mike

    I use a virtual credit card with date and amount limitations to sign up for these type of things. $5 for the first month, fine, I create a card with a $5 limit and a 2 month expiration. Then when they try to renew at $20 a month, the transaction fails and ends up in a cancellation.

  • DChamp56

    My favorite is when they set up to “automatically update” every year. I don’t want this, and change it as soon as I find out they set up my billing that way. If they say (and they have) they can’t change it, I ask to cancel immediately. “Oh look, we can do that after all” usually comes next.
    Automatic charges suck. ’nuff said.

  • fred cosentino

    Also beware when you do try to cancel online during your free trial period. You might think when you click the “cancel” button you’re through. Not always so. Some sites make you go through multiple screens until you get a “you are now cancelled” message. Print it out and save it, in case you might need it in the future. I was fooled twice (shame on me) by this scam. Once by Ancestors.com (which by the way, I only joined for free because someone I know sent me a link claiming to have information about my ancestors and ancestors.com would only let me view it if I joined “for free”). And once by sundancenow.com. You shouldn’t have to go through multiple screens AFTER you hit the “cancel” button. Beware!

  • joycexyz

    Kindle Unlimited is not the same as Amazon Prime. The latter is very good for those who purchase frequently from Amazon (free 2-day shipping), and also gives access to a good selection of free music and streaming video. For me, it’s worthwhile. But I agree with you about Kindle Unlimited. Not worth it. And I’m always leery about negative option and automatic renewal–unless I’m sure it’s something I want.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I’m an Amazon Prime fan – I use it quite a bit for TV-watching. I was able to cancel my cable TV because, between Amazon Prime and Netflix, I’ve got all the TV I need to watch right there at my fingertips. And you can add channels like HBO and Showtime to your Amazon Prime so that you get to see all of their shows on demand. And it ends up being cheaper than paying for cable. Since I also recently cancelled my land line, now all I need cable for is high-speed internet.

    Amazon has been creating some really awesome original shows of its own too, which I don’t think you can see without Prime. Mozart in the Jungle, Transparent, Goliath…these are fabulous shows. And while there’s much criticism about the lackluster list of movies available free on Prime, you can rent first-run movies at your fingertips, which I do occasionally…it’s like a trip to Blockbuster used to be, so I don’t mind the occasional expense for a good new-release movie.

    I do have some reservations about the whole free 2-day shipping thing. I’ve read some articles about the impact on the environment of all these boxes now that people are just clicking away for whatever they need, but I don’t use it like that – I still like to go to stores to shop. I also price-compare when I do order something online, and Amazon Prime isn’t always the cheapest, even with the free shipping.

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