The four most dangerous words a consumer can hear

You can always cancel.

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

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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 when you see those four words — you can always cancel.

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.

“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.

6 thoughts on “The four most dangerous words a consumer can hear

  1. I already had Amazon Prime, and a couple of weeks ago I started getting notifications about “Kindle Prime” and suggestions for free titles. I assume this is the same as “Kindle Unlimited”? I view it as a nice bonus to my Amazon Prime membership (which is a great investment in my opinion). The first free title I downloaded was a book by Richard Thaler, who just won the Nobel Prize in economics. I haven’t had a chance to start it, but if it’s anything like the writings of his contemporary Daniel Kahneman, I am sure it is a wonderful book. The free stuff isn’t all dreck.

    1. I think with prime you get access to additional content. I think my mom streams movies and shows with Amazon Prime.

      1. Yes you do. We have Prime and have full access to streaming. Use it all the time on our tv. For us, Prime is worth every penny I pay since I shop a lot and get my items really fast.

    2. Amazon Prime is a good benefit IF 1) you make several purchases a year from Amazon for the free 2-day shipping and/or 2) you watch a lot of videos. We are happy with Amazon Prime since my wife does a lot of shopping on Amazon. However, we are somewhat disappointed with the children and family movies selection…my son has probably have seen most of the movies (he watches 2 movies a month).

    3. Amazon Prime is not the same as Kindle Unlimited. While one of the “perks” of the former is the ability to read a book per month free (but not just any book), the latter is simply a lending library populated mostly by self-published books or books published under Amazon’s imprint–very few by major publishers. At $9.99 per month, I’d be very skeptical. Amazon Prime offers a whole lot more (free shipping, free streaming videos and the aforementioned free ebook/month) for a yearly fee of $99. No, the free stuff is not all dreck. Only the reader can determine the worth of the books and the program.
      That said, the negative option has been used for years in subscription businesses as a “convenience” to the subscriber. Actually, a convenience for the companies. And a free trial can be a trap if you don’t keep track of the dates. If you subscribe to a free trial, I recommend a notation on your calendar as a reminder. And don’t subscribe to a whole bunch! Maybe one at a time–easier to keep track.

    4. Prime includes a large number of books that you can read for free. You can borrow ten at a time, and an unlimited number per month (great for fast readers).

      The selection of books is interesting, to say the least. I’ve found some great stories, and some that I felt like I overpaid for…

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