Misleading ads lure consumers into costly subscriptions


Ads on free samples, trials and contests cause a growing number of consumers in the Nordic countries to complain to the European Consumer Centres. These consumers feel tricked into subscription or they are being charged a sum on their credit card without approving.

Think before you click if you are exposed to a pop-up advertisement for a free trial or a contest with great prizes. Perhaps the trial isn’t free at all, or maybe you will be trapped in a costly subscription as you sign up in a contest. The European Consumer Centres (ECC), a network that works across EU borders to assist consumers in connection with cross-border trade within the EU, have received an increasing number of complaints on free trials and subscriptions. In the Nordic countries the ECC offices have experienced a rise in complaints from 1 193 in 2014 to 1 820 in 2015 and 2 443 complaints in 2016 – so far.

Typically a consumer contacts the national ECC office explaining that their credit card has been charged an unauthorised sum of money.

“Our observation is that far too often consumers don’t receive the correct information on the product or on the terms of the offer. Often the consumer end up in a subscription without giving consent,” says Jolanda Girzl, director of ECC in Sweden.

Most commonly the problem arises when the consumer responds to an offer for a product or service that is advertised as being free or for a very small sum of money. The offer is often on cosmetics and healthcare products, such as diet pills, perfumes and anti-wrinkle creams. The offer can also be on becoming a product tester or a participant in a contest.

Most frequently the consumer comes across the offer on ads in social media but it can also be offers through emails and other advertisement. In order to make use of the offer the consumer has to provide the company with credit card details.  

"Subscription traps can affect anyone. To avoid falling into a trap, you should always read the terms and conditions to see what you accept to, for example, if one is offered a welcome pack. Do not be too quick to click yes to deals that are too good to be true in random ads", is the call from Jolanda Girzl.

* The Nordic ECC’s include Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden offices.

Year/Consumer complaints
2014: 1 193
2015: 1 820
2016: 2 443

Checklist for consumers: Before saying yes to an online offer

  • 1. Make sure who you are dealing with. You can’t be sure that the contact details on the company website are true. Check the company on the web site who.is, as this will reveal in which country the domain is registered.
  • 2. A simple search on the internet about the company or product can save you a lot of trouble. How high or low is the company rating, and what is the experience of other consumers?
  • 3. Read thoroughly the offer’s contract terms, especially the section on what the agreement means, your rights of termination and what applies regarding the right of withdrawal. Do not forget to read the fine print.
  • 4. Use common sense! If an offer it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Checklist for consumers: If you have ended up in a subscription trap

  • 1. Read the contract and the order confirmation carefully. Usually that is when you discover that a trial offer actually lead to a subscription.
  • 2. Send a withdrawal notice, preferable by e-mail, to the company where you explain that you regret your purchase. Save a copy of the statement as evidence.
  • 3. Do not use the product when it is delivered, instead return the unused product. Make sure to get a receipt of the shipment. Usually you pay for return shipping.
  • 4. If you receive reminders: you have no formal requirement to dispute the invoice again, but remind the company that you have disputed the invoice once before.
  • 5. If you get a debt collection claim: dispute it in the same way that you disputed the invoice. It is good practice not collect invoices that are disputed.
  • 6. Require the money back that you paid for the product, including shipping. If you have paid by card, you can contact the bank to make a chargeback in case the seller would not respect your consumer rights.
  • 7. If the company continues withdrawing money: complain to your bank and show the withdrawal letter / termination of the contract you sent to the company.

Here you can read the checklist "If you have ended up in a subscription trap" in whole.

More information

Questions is answered by director Jolanda Girzl, 054-19 40 52. Our legal advisers can be reached via ECC Sweden's switchboard, 054-19 41 50.

Read more about the ECC-network.