Carolyn Borer wants her money back from Adobe. She wants us to get it for her.
Borer’s daughter needed a Photoshop subscription for an art project, but the site made her purchase an annual subscription.
The least expensive, most restrictive offering costs $9.99 per month. When you consider she can’t cancel until the end of the year, that’s one expensive homework assignment.
“I tried to cancel the plan months ago but was told there would be a hefty penalty, so I let the plan run its one-year course,” she tells our advocacy team. “I assumed Adobe would stop billing and or try to sell a new plan. Instead, I have been billed again. I tried to cancel online via chat and was told there is a penalty to terminate early.”
How hefty a penalty? Scratch the surface on the Adobe website and you’ll see that customers are charged 50 percent of their remaining contract time to remove the subscription service.
Subscription services are not new by any stretch of the imagination, but they have adapted to our 21st century “need it now” mentality. I buy coffee at regular intervals from Keurig.com, and when my kids were really young, I bought diapers from the subscription program Amazon Mom. Both Keurig and Amazon allow its customers to modify shipment schedules and cancel at any time, at no cost.
All of that is cool. I want it, and they’ll deliver. We understand this is not a forever situation. Everybody wins.
But Adobe’s 12-month subscription service is the only option the company provides. It offers students its full suite of products, for a promotional price of $19.99 per month, down from the retail price of $49.99 per month. The terms, however, explain that at the end of twelve months, unless you cancel, you will be charged each month at the full retail price.
The student rates apply to subscribers ages 13 and over, with a verified .edu email address. Can companies really count on 13 year olds to have the sophistication to cancel in a timely manner, or is the company rather counting on the student not canceling?
This payment arrangement is one brilliant example of what’s become the seedy underbelly of subscription models. This business model requires customers to agree that they will be charged at regular intervals, unless they actively cancel before the current subscription term.
These charges typically appear on a credit card bill as “recurring” charges. And those words always send a shiver up my spine.
How many of us have subscribed to services we don’t even remember we have? And why are companies allowed to make it so hard to stop buying a service we don’t want anymore?
When I subscribed to SiriusXM radio, I researched a promotional rate, and would have to schedule a date in my Outlook calendar every 6 months, to call back and pretend I wanted to cancel in order to avoid being charged the full price, which is a pricey $20 per month. Instead I paid $6.50 per month, but I got tired of the renegotiation routine, and eventually canceled once and for all.
In fairness to SiriusXM, the company allows you to opt-out of its auto-renew service, which means the charge is run to the customer’s card as a one-time transaction. This is probably the most costly arrangement for SiriusXM, because when the customer doesn’t actively call to renew his subscription, the company has to invest money in winning the customer back, through marketing materials, better deals, and contact from live customer service agents. It’s something they’d love to avoid.
Some customers prefer recurring charges, as they allow the customer to make monthly payments seamlessly, without thought or effort. But the real winners in this arrangement are undoubtedly businesses and credit card companies, especially when consumers are not carefully monitoring their accounts. Discover card freely admits that the recurring charge arrangement generates more sales annually for businesses, and makes customers less likely to cancel their accounts.
These arrangements can provide benefits to customers, when the auto-renew price is not an increase over the current term, and when the company doesn’t charge hefty “cancellation fees” when a customer wants out. If we were to level the playing field, companies requiring a recurring charge arrangement would have to surrender their right to cancellation fees.
For Borer and Adobe, this is the predicament we face. All because her daughter had a homework assignment.
You might say that Borer could easily cancel her credit card, but it’s not always that straightforward. Banks and credit cards imprint the transaction with data called “recurring billing indicators,” which allow recurring charges to “jump” from an expired card or a canceled card to its successor. I once closed out an entire bank account and transferred my funds to a brand new account, just to get out from under such an arrangement. It’s unsettling, to say the least.
All of this means consumers need to be vigilant in checking monthly account statements, and yes, scheduling those phone calls to cancel accounts before they auto-renew.