“How can I cancel before I subscribe?” and other auto-renew horrors

Vicki Alexander’s recent experience with beauty subscription company GlossyBox has left her wondering how someone can cancel a subscription before she has even signed up.

Such a feat may be impossible, but the crazy terms of her deal have led her to wonder if she is losing her money — or just losing her mind.

Possibly a little of both.

GlossyBox is one of several companies that have become popular in the last few years, offering packages of preselected cosmetics, shipped at regular intervals. For customers who enjoy letting someone else choose products for them, it’s an enticing proposition.

Alexander signed up for a monthly cosmetic subscription on May 24, and she received her first shipment on June 1. When she opened the box, she didn’t like the products, and thought it wasn’t a good value. So she did what anyone in her position would do. She immediately canceled.

Or so she thought.

The GlossyBox business model requires that the customer provide a credit card and agree to auto-renewal. Alexander’s case shows us how tricky it can be to get out of an auto-renew agreement, when a company has your credit card information and has buried the terms of the deal in the fine print.

Knowing GlossyBox requires cancellation by the 14th of the month, Alexander logged into her account to cancel right away. When she canceled her subscription, GlossyBox sent a confirmation of her cancellation. And although it was June 1, the email specified that she would still be charged for a June shipment, which would arrive later in the month.

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Alexander wrote back to customer service, asking why she would be charged again for June if her cancellation occurred on June 1.

“I do not want to receive the next box,” she wrote to GlossyBox. “Today is June 1; this is more than enough time.”

That’s when GlossyBox delivered the bad news: “Although you canceled before the 14th of the month, you still receive the box for the month in which you cancel.”


Frustrated and furious, Alexander responded to the company to remind them of the transaction timeline and figure out how this could be possible. “I bought the box after the 14th of May. That does not make sense! Buying the May box does NOT commit me to buying the June box! How can I cancel before I subscribe?”

Auto-renew programs aren’t always deceptive, but when the company makes canceling difficult, expensive or worse — threatens the loss of services for the duration of the period already paid — auto-renew schemes are not consumer-friendly. This isn’t the first time we’ve written about the deceptive nature of auto-renew programs, and it surely won’t be the last. It’s one of our least favorite consumer “gotchas.”

GlossyBox explained to Alexander that had she not glossed over the deal’s terms and conditions, but reviewed them closely, she would have seen that signing up for monthly subscription after the 14th of the month automatically forces an opt-in to the following month as well. “Your subscription is now cancelled,” GlossyBox wrote. “Moving forward after the June box, you will not be charged for or receive any more shipments.”

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GlossyBox didn’t use the word “forces” – I did. But sure enough, about halfway through its 6,760 words of terms and conditions, (about eight times the length of this article) it specifies: “If you choose to subscribe to the Monthly Plan between the 15th to the end of the month, you automatically agree to the following month’s charge.”

Well, that’s nice. Alexander doesn’t want to be a GlossyBox customer anymore, and the company is pointing to the contract, magnifying glass in hand, telling her she has no choice. And when you consider that the company could take a brand new order on May 24 and deliver it a week later, there’s no reason it can’t accept a cancellation just as quickly.

It just doesn’t want to.

Instead, the company has established a business model that preys on consumers who don’t read the fine print, drafted solely to ensure that as many auto-drafts as possible can be processed, whether or not the customer wants the service any longer. It’s what you do when you know the majority of customers are trying the service as a novelty, in a pathetic move to maximize profits.

And reviewing the fine print, you’ll find that GlossyBox writes its subscription plans so that all amounts paid are nonrefundable and products are neither returnable nor exchangeable, unless they arrive damaged. So why get involved in such a program?

Our advocacy team contacted GlossyBox, asking how Alexander should have known that subscribing on the 24th of the month involved an automatic two-month commitment. A GlossyBox representative referred us to the fine print and finally offered to refund the money paid for the June box, if Alexander agreed to refuse the shipment.

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“Too little, too late,” Alexander responded. “I opened the box, thinking maybe it was worth the money. It is not. The box includes bright red lipstick (I am 60 and do not wear that) and a few other ‘meh’ things.”

That’s been my experience with personal shopping services like these. They leave something to be desired, and if I’m going to spend money, I prefer the specificity and the value placed on customer satisfaction when shopping directly from luxury cosmetic brands. For $21 a month and a little trial and error, it can be done, without all the strings attached.

The whole setup – the tricky cancellation policy and the nonrefundable, recurring charges, with no easy way out — is the company’s way of ensuring it keeps the upper hand for as long as possible. It’s a great reason to avoid auto-renew programs, and if you get involved in them, to be extra vigilant.

Since Alexander had not actually opened any of the June product, and following correspondence with our advocates, GlossyBox made an exception to its policy, accepting the return and refunding her money.

Consider this Pandora’s box closed.

Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

  • Tom McShane

    I had problems with a certain satellite radio company–whom I will not name–on this kind of issue. Once they get hold of your credit card info, it is rather difficult to get them to let go of it. It’s sorta like inviting a vampire into your house. Once you do that, the vampire can then enter any time it wants.
    I bet some readers know whether credit card companies are receptive to uninviting the vampire. I do not.

  • Rebecca

    For the life of me, I don’t understand why you’d want anyone to select cosmetics for you. I have really pale skin (as in – I wear literally the lightest foundation they make) and reddish blonde hair, so the majority of makeup looks garish on me. I can’t even wear darker neutral colors. Plus, I actually enjoy taking the time to look sometimes. If I’m buying expensive makeup, you can bet I’m trying it before I’m putting down the cash.

    In terms of auto-renew, I avoid this like the plague. The only thing I autobill is my utility bills and car/house insurance. Those will have to be paid no matter what. If there’s some sort of service you need auto-renewed like this, I’d suggest getting a prepaid debit card. That way, if you don’t put money on it, the company can’t charge you. There are some out there with nominal fees, so long as you pay attention to the terms. A one time charge of about $3 saves lots of future hassle.

  • Flyonpa

    You use “One Use/One Vendor” credit Card Numbers both Visa & MC offer (Probably the others also) You give them the one use ones, you can cancel via your banks website that number with out effecting your main number, When they attempt to charge to it, MC/Visa will reject. Odds are other then a few email, they won’t chase you to pay for the shipments that have not been made yet.

  • mbods2002

    Hmmm, do you mean the Pre-Paid credit cards?

  • MarkKelling

    No. There are one time use credit card numbers. Sometimes called virtual credit cards. They are tied to your main credit card, but can only be used once at only the specified online merchant (they do allow one return/refund also from the same merchant for that transaction). Very popular a few years ago, now not every one offers them. Bank of America and Citi offer them currently.

  • MarkKelling

    The only issue with these cards is that if the merchant sets up the charge as a “recurring payment” (a flag set in the transaction when it is sent to the card issuer for approval) the charge may still post even on a one time use card. This is allowed as a convenience to you so that if you forget to update your card info your payment doesn’t get rejected causing you to possibly get late fees. Recurring payments are usually your utility payments, insurance, and other things you really do want to pay. The flip side is any payment can technically be called a recurring payment by the merchant.

    Would that have happened here? Not sure, but as difficult as they make it to get out of their subscription, I wouldn’t be surprised.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for checking in with an update. It’s good to hear from someone. I learned a similar lesson with an auto-renew several years ago. And yes, that small print is terrible!!!!

  • LonnieC

    Bank of America also has a virtual card which can be set up online. it sets a virtual number, and you can set the maximum amount, and the date of expiration for that transaction and number. I’ve used it many times. Never a problem, and great relief of mind.

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