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Dark Patterns by the Boston Globe (rationalconspiracy.com)
726 points by apsec112 on April 25, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 317 comments

This kind of misleading pattern is illegal in Australia and from reading other comments, probably the Europe.

In Australia the full price for a product has to be displayed equally or more prominently than any other price. So that $6.93 has to be just as visible other pricing claims (like $0.99 for 4 weeks).

The same law also requires companies to include tax prominently in their pricing. More generally, a business cannot engage in misleading or deceptive conduct.

The rationale behind this is it makes things fair for consumers, and helps businesses compete fairly.

These laws probably don't exist in places like the US as businesses complain about compliance costs, and the governments have other priorities.


"Prices displayed by a business must be clear, accurate and not misleading to consumers. You should always display the total price of a product or service. When you present prices to your customers, you must state the total price of the good or service as a single figure, which is the minimum total cost that is able to be calculated."

It's illegal not to comply.

> "When you present prices to your customers, you must state the total price of the good or service as a single figure, which is the minimum total cost that is able to be calculated."

Interesting. Suppose you go into a fast food place and say "I'll have a burger, medium onion rings, and a small soft drink". Assume onion rings come in medium and large, soft drinks come in small, medium, and large, and fries come in small, medium, and large. Assume onion rings and fries of the same size cost the same, and one can be substituted for the other in a combo with no price change.

The clerk could ring this up as those three separate items as ordered, giving price P1.

A second option is to ring it up as a medium combo (Burger, medium fries, medium drink), substitute onion rings for fries, and downgrade the drink to small, giving price P2 which is less than P1.

A third option is to ring it up as a small combo (Burger, small fries, small drink), upgrade to medium fries, and then substitute onion rings for fries, giving price P3 which is less than p2.

Is the seller in violation of the law if the clerk does not figure out and use option three?

How about an order for multiple people but all on the same ticket? For example here in the US Arby's has gyros for a limited time. They are something like a little over $4 each, but they have a 2 for $6 deal. Suppose a family of 5 comes in. The husband orders, then each kid orders, then the wife orders and pays. Suppose 3 of the 5 people ordered a single gyro each. If this were in Australia, would the clerk be required to notice that he can put two of those gyros together and ring them up as 2 for $6?

Hey there, the quoted sentence is not a precise interpretation of the law (albeit is is written by a regulator). You could read the law at s47 - 48 at http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/caca201026... and probably argue either way with your examples. If you think of a "combo" or "bundle" as a separate good to the individual items then those examples are unlikely to be covered.

In reality though, these laws are intended to prevent misleading price representations, not to force businesses to calculate the best deal for their customers.

I'm pretty sure that usually, in the last situation with Arby's, the computer would automatically combine things that are part of a combo and apply the discount.

I think most point of sale systems have this built in when your order automatically gets a discount. Specially in supermarkets where the price changes with quantity.

In the UK at least, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations of 2008 imply that it is an illegal sales technique. There has been some success in courts prosecuting this to a degree that most subscription services will also display the full price, less they become the example case.

Pedantic correction: "less they become ..." should be "_lest_ they become..."

In Germany the "fine print" price has to be clearly visible, too.

I suspect there are EU rules on the top of the chain forcing all member countries to enforce such laws.

There are. In fact, they were strengthened significantly quite recently, particularly in the area of online sales, and now with potentially quite serious penalties for any business that doesn't comply.

If you're interested, the main underlying EU rules are in Directive 2011/83/EU.

I'm curious, how many Australian websites force you to enter your shipping address before you shop? In the US to properly account for sales tax you basically have to get the coordinates of the address you're shipping to.

The most degenerate example I'm aware of, is that my boss lives on a county border. On the other side of his street, sales taxes are 7.5%. His are 9%. The zip code, city (kind of - technically one side is part of another city, but the post office recognizes it as the same city), and street name is all the same, but the county is different, which you don't collect for shipping reasons.

Every online retailer I've seen collects it wrong, including Amazon, although maybe their backend for reporting purposes calculates it right. When searching for software solutions to sales tax, most of them seem to get it wrong too.

In Australia the only sales tax we have is the GST, which is a flat 10% nation wide. There's no need for a shipping address to calculate it.

They do often ask for a post code at the checkout to calculate shipping, however.

Most countries that have VAT have a uniform percentage for the whole country.

As the engineer being forced to implement patterns like this that I felt were shady, I can almost promise you that some "growth hacker" or "subscriber acquisition consultant" or "optimization consultant" comes in with case study stats or runs an A/B tool to see various effects. They're likely able to show several percent increase for each of these dark patterns, then management has real dollars to have to turn down. Then I complain that we're violating trust which can't be easily or immediately quantified, and the response is "eh, I see the button, a user will find it if they want it."

After raising the flag too many times without being heard, I finally quit. But is there a more scalable way to protest / stop this?

What about a browser extension that warns when you try to sign up for a service that you can only cancel by phone?

There are bad people in every profession. Unfortunately marketing seems to have a higher rate of them, and "growth hacking" is probably at 99%. Anyone who concludes a test without sufficient information or consideration for side-effects—or worse, makes a change without testing at all simply because some other growth hacker claims it works—is just eager to claim another win without care for actual business outcomes.

(I say this as a customer acquisition consultant.)

With that said, engineers are notoriously more sensitive to marketing and sales than the general population, and therefore overestimate the negative impact of a marketing or sales tactic.

(I say this as a former engineer.)

Case in point:

I once consulted for a popular NoSQL DB company. When I came along, they were letting anyone download a trial of the DB without providing any contact information—not even an email. So even as more and more people learned about them, the sales team had no leads to sell to.

I set up a test in which a random 50% of people who clicked "Download" would be prompted for their email before the download could start.

We _knew_ the download rates would drop, but that's a tradeoff the company was willing to make to fill up its sales pipeline (and survive). After some discussion and back-of-the-envelope math, we decided that anything less than a 60% drop would be worth it if it meant the sales team got leads.

The test ran for two months. The drop-off rate was just 30%, meaning 70% of those who were prompted for an email went on to download. What's more, the average usage frequency went _up_ for the test group. It turns out the email form was mostly screening out the people with little interest in using the product, who would've only looked at it once or twice and never return.

With all that said, dark patterns and "growth hackers" are a scourge that I wish would go away.

When the goal of the profession (advertising/marketing) is to signal a brand and influence you in ways to override your decision making skills it's no wonder that deceptive patterns pop up.

That's a rather cynical way of looking at... any profession.

"The goal of the app development profession is to take money from phone users."

"The goal of software engineering is to control users' computers."

And so on... Reductio ad absurdum. You can do this to any profession you choose.

Advertising/Marketing is unique in that it doesn't produce any byproducts. It's conceivable, and often the case, that software is developed because it's something useful and fun to do. The same is true for food, rockets, cars, novels, etc. Advertising/Marketing though doesn't exist for any other reason than to promote products and facilitate flow of money.

Marketing is education, and advertising is art, which is fun and useful. You think people work at, say, McDonald's, because they like cooking?

So you lost 30%*x% of sales, to what benefit? Did it hurt you to have window shoppers growing your mind share?

Your story sounds like a classic case of chasing bad metrics like conversion percentage instead of bottom line.

> Did it hurt you to have window shoppers growing your mind share?

Yes. The awareness was growing but sales was not keeping up. It was a business decision to focus more on sales and less on awareness.

The sales team suddenly had 470% more sales leads to work with than the month before, for the price of 30% low-interest downloaders. I don't see how you can think that would result in _less_ sales.

Ask the consultant to perform (or at least implement) LTV measurement across 3/6-months stage. Price sensitive bank-account-checking users will act as a canary, and at least in the Boston Globe case, I suspect tactics like these to increase churn by at least as much as they increase conversion (implying the business will only see benefit for the next N month after consultant).

As for trust, the US case is simple: report it to BBB.

The BBB is a scam. It's a cartel / protection racket that collects rents from their historic reputation. Complaints to the BBB do nothing because BBB ratings are based a businesses engagement with the BBB, not consumer satisfaction!

> Another of these little-known facts about the BBB: “We are not a consumer watchdog.” While the BBB offers consumers many services—lists of popular scams to watch out for and such—the organization’s mission isn’t to have your back. From top to bottom, the BBB is funded by the annual dues paid by businesses it anoints with “accreditation,” which allows the companies to put those iconic BBB stamps of approval on their storefronts and websites. This fact raises obvious questions about an inherent conflict of interest: The organization’s customers are businesses, not taxpayers or consumers. How can the BBB serve as an honest broker between businesses and consumers when it is fully funded by one of these parties? Many argue that it cannot — that there’s a natural incentive to paint its paying clients in the best possible light.

> Whether or not a business is accredited, it can be graded by the BBB. The grading system, ranging from A+ to F, is confusing at best, useless at worst. Business grades are determined by 16 factors, including how many complaints have been filed with the BBB against the business, and if and how the business responded. Notably, however, a business’s grade won’t necessarily be hurt if nothing much comes of a complaint and the customer is left unsatisfied. Rather, all that matters, grading-wise, is that the business responded and made a “good faith effort to resolve complaints,” according to the BBB. This means that a business could have a good grade even if it is the subject of lots of complaints, as long as the business dutifully responds — even in a pro forma way.

> On the flip side, a business that is committed to handling complaints directly with customers in a substantive way, but does so outside the purview of the BBB, will get a poor grade because the BBB is not involved. So a company can have a B or C rating, or even an F, simply because it doesn’t play by the BBB’s rules, which include looping in the organization with complaint responses and providing the BBB with background information about the company.



Is there a better BBB?

Maybe we could have a better business bureau for better business bureaus.

If worse is better then there can't be a better BBB.

Yelp? Google Local?

Maybe a professional association for software engineers? A few isolated engineers quitting because of this won't accomplish much, but concerted action might.

Get a few counter-examples where this backfired.

Zynga survived for a while but eventually their "gamification-only" games flopped. Similarly, there are examples where real businesses tried to play the "short term online growth at the expense of trust" game and flopped.

There are an awful lot of comments on this expressing disgust and outrage for the "dark patterns" employed by the Boston Globe to increase subscriptions and revenue and my guess is that a hefty portion of the people expressing said disgust and outrage are also using ad blockers.

Publishing is in a very uncomfortable place right now - at the bottom of this comment I've attached a 2014 report from Adobe which, TL;DR, says that most people are unwilling to pay for content online and also unwilling to see ads online. This sort of behavior is forcing publishers to squeeze revenue of any stone they can find.

I understand that this may not be a popular opinion here, but content doesn't create itself, people do, and people need to make a living. Maybe before we all start admonishing the Boston Globe (founded in 1872, btw) for making a close button on a modal perhaps a tick too light, we should consider why these practices are becoming more and more common place.


Traditional newspapers were losing money long before ad blockers became widely used. It is the switch to the net that is strangling them.

Sure, ad blockers aren't helping, but are a response to highly annoying crap, malware, etc. being shoveled by the increasingly desperate. It is an arms race, but not one newspapers can win.

Also, little hint: having your revenue threatened isn't an excuse for being unethical. Nobody (even corporations, slowly becoming more equal than others) has a right to a profit, or even staying in business.

Honestly these patterns are the reason I don't subscribe, You can't find the price.

I say this as a former editor (photo) of a college paper who grew up loving the news and knowing that journalism is a tough and important business.

This might be a reaction to The Boston Globe having trouble with the "older" paper copy version too. For those that don't know by trying to save money by switching to a cheaper deliverer; end result nobody was getting their papers. Nobody could get through on the phone lines to cancel.

I don't subscribe the NYTimes for this reason. They always say "99 a week for 4 weeks" and finding out what it costs in he future proved to be frustratingly difficult. Odd because I'd be willing to pay a buck or 2 a week.

I donate and listen to local new on my radio station which is quite good instead.

I agree, and it seems clear that publishers are caught in a tough spot.. but I don't think that's a very good excuse to employ deception. To me it reads like "We're honest when we're making money, but when we're not... better hold on to your wallets" oh and "We'll decide when we're doing well."

From the english language papers I'm willing to pay for the Economist. It's high quality and there is lots of good stuff every time. It's worth of the price.

I would like to pay for more articles if there would be Netflix style subscription where I pay, say, 25 EUR per month for subscription for everything and the only thing I have to do is click.

The current subscription model where you subscribe to the whole paper for long periods of time is not the future. Neither is one where you have to register and pay $5 for articles one by one. I'm not ready to pay 2000 USD per month to subscribe to every magazine I want to read articles from and I'm not willing to pay $5 per article either.

This is the exact sort of behavior that led me to use an ad blocker.

No one asked them to publish anything online, that was their choice. Most users don't want to pay for content because they're used to it being free on the internet - after all, most content is. BG needs to come to terms with the fact that some industries just die out and cannot always be profitable.

You're implying that people will produce quality news content for free? Or that we will switch back to a paper based (or at least physical) product?

>You're implying that people will produce quality news content for free?


Why is this called "dark patterns"? It seems that it can be more accurately described by calling it deliberately misleading or deceptive design. Clicking the link I had no idea what it meant. Terminology like this makes sense when the concept can't already be described using two words.

As for the content of the article, it has always seemed anti-user to me for a website to prompt for a subscription 30 seconds into browsing a page. I wonder if anyone has actually investigated the effect it has on traffic properly, because I always go back whenever I get prompted to subscribe.

If someone had told me in 2005 that in the future, intrusive popups would work its way back into the domains of acceptable design to the point where people will gladly have them on their personal blogs I would have laughed in disbelief. Together with "You have an outdated browser" ("Please view this in Netscape 4.0"), "Rotate your device" ("Best viewed in 800x600") this is all a terrible setback in acceptable practices.

Add to that some more recent design patterns like a "share on <social media>" button taking up 1/5 of the screen estate following you through the page only for the benefit of the publisher and the handful of users that also actively use twitter, weird overloading of scrolling behavior, "Continue reading" buttons... It's an awful mess and especially for websites that ideally would just present plain written text with some pictures it seems like designers are over-engineering their solutions for goals that in no way aligned with those of the users.

Why is this called "dark patterns"?

It is - for reasons that are a conversation unto themselves - uncouth to suggest a business is acting in bad faith without airtight evidence of malice. So the language gets softened.

It's doubly crazy when talking about the press. OP is picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. For all the rah rah "speaking truth to power" of the press, if you question the press you have to go hat-in-hand.

I don't think that is a valid concern in this case. From what I understand, "dark patterns" is hardly an euphemism, and implies that the perpetrator of "dark patterns" is acting in bad faith. The only reference to it that I can find providing a definition (http://darkpatterns.org) says that dark patterns "are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind".

It's a shortening of "dark design patterns", which in turn is short of saying "outright malicious design patterns". I'm not sure who coined the term or when it first appeared, but I find it an apt umbrella under which to describe a whole constellation of tricks and gotchas designed for unsuspecting and usually non-tech-savvy users.


So it means "outright malicious design patterns", but instead of saying that and conveying the meaning perfectly using relatively established and self-describing terminology, one can say two words less to make me look it up on a website. It doesn't seem like a win to me.

because "dark pattern" sounds cooler than "deceptive advertising" and it gets you more clicks.

Maybe someone should write a post on "the dark pattern of dark pattern articles."

I agree. A dark pattern might be making the close button harder to see, but the pricing shenanigans are just downright deceptive and actually illegal in some parts of the world.

I disagree with cleanly splitting it into two categories, they're different points on the same scale.

Acting as if there is a difference in kind gives implicit approval to the behavior that is lower on the scale, and solidifies a dividing line that should be continuously getting pushed downward to move more and more types of deception onto the unacceptable side.

It's simply an umbrella term for similar deception practices.

I absolutely hate the dark pattern of fully controlling your subscription online, including changing it to a different service, but canceling requires a phone call during very specific business hours where you are very likely to forget.

It's disgusting and way too many companies are utilizing these tactics rather than building a solid business model.

More companies that are doing this should be called out. Ive seen naturebox, justfab and others just to name a few.

Pro tip: Email them to cancel. When they tell you they only cancel on the phone, tell them you're deaf and can't talk on the phone.

Works every time.

Why do I have to become dishonest to cancel a service? I don't want to do that. I don't want to lie. This is terrible. This doesn't make it any better or easier to cancel. I don't want to lie and I shouldn't have to.

> Why do I have to become dishonest to cancel a service?

Because the service provider is dishonest already.

That doesn't make it okay to lie to them. Where did you learn morality? Ancient Babylon?

The fallacy is in considering a corporate account-management procedure as 'them'. There's no person there. There's a process set up. Do what you have to, to defeat the obstacles presented by that process.

Like all such processes, this one is defined by people, and implemented mostly in terms of a set of actions available to those employees of the corporation who handle cancellation requests. Telling such a person that you're deaf, and thus unable to communicate by voice telephone, is no less a lie because that person happens to be acting on behalf of his employer. If your morality forbids lying, then this lie violates it no less than any other.

There seems to me a somewhat troubling trend of reaction to the widely derided "corporate personhood" principle in law, by deliberately depersonalizing such "persons" to an extent which appears to me to increasingly include not only the "corporate person" per se, but the actual people persons who constitute that corporation, and who implement and act upon its policies - to regard the modern corporation as a faceless alien behemoth, after all, is of necessity to overlook the fact that it is an organization of people, in theory (if to a somewhat greater extent than in practice) around a common goal.

Your comment here is squarely in this line. "There's no person there", after all, is blatantly erroneous: of course there is a person there, otherwise there'd be no one to whom to worry about lying. It's been a while since I last reread The Authoritarians, but I seem to remember this kind of depersonalization being a significant theme in its analysis of how your category of authoritarian followers become willing to countenance human rights abuses. In that light, it surprises me to see you express a perspective which includes precisely that kind of elision, and I'm curious whether you see a substantive difference where I do not.

Yet there is also a process. Its impersonal by design. You are not even likely to talk to the same person twice. So the rules are different. If you pretend its a one-on-one relationship, you will be manipulated, lied to and frustrated.

Miss Manners reports trying to get her newspaper address changed. She called several times, but no result. Finally an agent told her that they are instructed to not do anything unless the customer was angry. She politely asked "Would you put me down as having been livid?" He politely agreed.

Did she lie? We all know we're just trying to get the system to work for us. Today, when you can't even begin to talk to a real person on the other end, you have less (no?) requirement to pretend you're interacting with one.

You are accusing the victims of authoritarianism of being authoritarian when they fight for their rights against organizations trying to oppress them. Wow.

What's wrong with that? It's not okay to become evil in order to fight evil.

you didn't explain why you believe it's troubling that people come to realise not all behaviour is caused by persons?

is it unethical to lie to an automated email form or a chatbot?

Lying isn't inherently wrong. You aren't lying to a person with feelings, you're lying to a faceless operation that is fucking you over.


It's clearly important to treat people with respect, even when they find themselves in a job position whose description goes against your interests.

But you wouldn't be lying to them, as I can assure you the customer service worker couldn't care less whether you're really deaf or not. As an analogy, telling a lie via telegram only counts as lying to the recipient, not to the post office clerks typing and handling the telegram.

In fact you would be lying to a faceless entity that is not a human being, whose charter clearly states that its purpose is to extract as much money as possible from you and funnel it somewhere else. Where to? Into the (ultimate) pockets of people who have built this entire construction in order to be as removed as possible from the moral and legal implications of the faceless entity's actions. Not to mention remaining very well hidden. Cowards and thieves, at the very least.

Whether you believe I'm lying to the faceless entity or to the cowards and thieves who built it that way (which is a valid philosophical point) I have no qualms whatsoever doing either thing.

>Lying isn't inherently wrong.

Perhaps not to you. Morality is personal, and to me this comment is abhorrent.

Let me pose to you another scenario, and you tell me if you think my actions where abhorrent:

Whenever I work from home, there's often a knock at the door from someone trying to sell me solar panels. It's always a hard sell, they don't take "no" for an answer, and I don't have the time to deal with it. So when they ask if I'm the homeowner, I respond, "No, I rent.". They thank me and continue on their way.

Yes. Just tell them you're not interested or don't answer the door. There's no need to lie.

Do I look fat in this dress?

Whether it's okay to lie to them has no obvious bearing on whether it's necessary. Where did you learn morality? A shallow reading of the New Testament?

From my parents, thanks. I fail to see how it's "necessary" in any sense here. Nobody's going to die because I called the company to cancel my account instead of emailing them.

Three hours of my life, spent waiting on hold, are going to die.

If you choose not to do anything else while waiting to speak to a CSR, it's a bit silly to complain.

>That doesn't make it okay to lie to them.

You are right. What makes it okay to lie is that no harm is done to anyone I care about not harming. That they made themselves someone I no longer care about harming is their own issue.

Moreover, the person you'd be lying to couldn't care less if you're lying or not. The person is most likely paid by the hour and is counting down hours to clock out and go home.

Sorry, I'm not a consequentialist. And if harm is your criterion, what harm is done to anyone by calling customer service to cancel your account instead of lying so you can do it via email?

Any company that treats is customers so badly is likely to have a long hold period if you phone them up, probably by design. Calling them could easily take half an hour and my life only contains a finite number of half hours.

I'd like to think that I could do something productive with that time that would make my life or the world slightly better. Plus the frustration of sitting on hold would negatively impact my health and state of mind.

That seems like quite a lot of harm; certainly not worth an empty idealistic gesture that would not help anyone.

You can do something productive regardless. It's really baffling how many people seem to treat being put on hold as something that requires you to actively devote time to. Is this an age thing?

Being put on hold does put limits on what one can do. Can I be at the movies? Can I be having a discussion with friends and family? Can I driving? No to all of these (without having a performance impact).

Being put on hold does far more damage than lying in this particular case.

So it probably is an age thing. I would answer yes to all but the first, which I never do anyway.

Respecting your elders is right up their with honesty in the big ten commandments, son.

That's completely untrue. The 10 commandments only tell you to respect your parents, not "your elders". And they don't condemn lying, merely perjury.

Not that they are a great source for morality anyway, but if you're going to use them, at least use them properly, mom.

I learned morality from my grandparents who survived the Nazis, and some who did not. When smeoen someone knifes me, I don't ask permission to escape.

"Escaping" isn't immoral. Lying is.


Sorry, deaf humor. (I agree with you).

What if I'm trying to cancel a music streaming service?

The company might not believe you, but many deaf people do listen to music. Deaf doesn't have to mean total silence, it can also mean that sound is so muffled or distorted that you can't understand the spoken word. Music still has some value, if you crank it up.

All the better reason to cancel, no?

I have been in that situation before. I send them an email stating I wanted to cancel and I got the run of the mill "call this number". The reply proved that they're reading it so I send a reply back that I was unable to call, that they must forward the mail, and they're welcome to call me if they think it isn't me that is canceling. Then I refused any future CC payments and that was the end of it.

When I encounter these types of windows that I can't seem to "close" I use Google's developer console to inspect the element and then...delete it. The box goes away and I can read the rest of the news article. It's a pain but it's better than clicking anything that might lead to further annoyances.

I do something similar but using noScript (js disabled by default).

Most of the times the news are loaded without popups and sometimes with wrong CSS but still readable.

Sometimes I need to enable js only for the actual host for it to work. In the end it's worth the hassle.

To be clear, you can do this in any browser. I also am in the habit of editing EULA's before agreeing to anything.

Same. Would be nice to have a "make this recur" button so when page reloads I don't have to keep doing it.

EDIT: If it's just text I'm after, I'll also go in with elinks.

uBlock Origin has an element-selector built in. It pops up a little editing window, and you can modify and save the element to your own block list.

You could use something like Greasemonkey and set up rules for that domain, though it'd be nice if this was automated from the action of deleting an element.

Write a small TamperMonkey script to fix their BS JS. That's what I did when Comcast wouldn't let me pay my bill without creating a Comcastic!!! Account. My login worked just fine, but they really wanted to block me from paying my bill until I created a separate account with their useless email features and other things for some reason. Killing some DOM elements let me pay their ransom.

The downside is that web pages often change, so this might not work for long.

Unfortunately, you're risking your credit score. If you signed (or agreed to) a contract with a specific termination procedure, then just cancel your payments without going through that procedure, they are within their rights to recover the money.

There's no law to say that you can terminate by email. Most companies won't bother chasing, but there's nothing to stop them really hurting you.

> There's no law to say that you can terminate by email. Most companies won't bother chasing, but there's nothing to stop them really hurting you.

In most of Europe, there is.

In Germany, for example, the business has to allow cancelling via the same way as you signed up.

In Germany, for example, the business has to allow cancelling via the same way as you signed up.

That seems reasonable.

Do you know a lot of companies that will let someone sign up via e-mail? I don't.

I do know of lots of companies that let you sign up via website though.

And IMHO those companies should also let you cancel the same way, whether or not the law requires it. To me, that seems reasonable and fair.

There is no such thing as a credit score in Denmark. I can be put in a register called RKI, but only if I acknowledge that I owe them money, or the court has ruled that I do.

That sounds incredibly reasonable. So reasonable, in fact, that I can't see it ever being law in the US or UK.

Recover what money? Payment for services not yet rendered? In perpetuity until the customer makes a phone call?

Yes, they are providing a service: access to their content. Whether you read it or not is not their fault.

It's a silly situation that arises because of the (almost) zero marginal cost of providing digital media. It makes sense in the physical world: you can't claim your money back because you didn't read the magazine they sent. But these laws are much the same in the virtual world.

If they provided and you agreed to a way to cancel, and you don't use that way, they are totally within their rights to continue (passively) providing access, and charging for it. In perpetuity, yes.

An analogy to a magazine subscription would be a for-pay email newsletter. In that case, if the newsletter was sent, obviously the company is owed.

But in the case of a passive web site subscription, if the customer stops accessing the site and stops the method of payment, no services have been rendered, and no cost has been incurred by the company. Web server logs could even prove this (although the company could also falsify them).

So a better analogy would probably be a gym membership. Imagine a gym refuses to allow a customer to cancel in-person or on the phone, instead requiring the customer to mail a letter. So a customer, justifiably angry at this, calls his bank or credit card and stops future payments, and never sets foot in the gym again. Now, no services have been rendered after that date, and no costs have been incurred by the gym. They are owed nothing--if not legally in all jurisdictions, then ethically and morally, and therefore legally it should be the same.

I would like to see this tested in court, even a small claims court. In the case of a company intentionally making it difficult and time-consuming to unsubscribe, and a customer cancelling the payment method due to that difficulty, I have a feeling that most judges would side with the former customer. And as has been pointed out, in many places this is not legal, and I would not be surprised if that included several U.S. states.

> if not legally in all jurisdictions

Yep, you'd be screwed there too. If your agreement with the gym said you would unsubscribe by mail, and you just stop paying without doing so, they could recover the money.

Gyms make their money by having people pay without using the gym, so they wouldn't care that they aren't 'rendering services'. That's a big reason many companies, and most gyms, use subscriptions.

You could fight it in court if you want to. You might even win. You might even win the following battle to recover your credit score. But all that's going to be a lot more of a hassle than picking up the phone and cancelling in the first place. It takes a special kind of person to willfully seek such a pyrrhic victory.

Its not sensible, but it might be real.

That's a scare myth. Cancelling a $50 contract won't meaningfully hurt your credit score. Missing your rent and credit card payments for 3 months will hurt your credit score.

I skipped to the end of that process. Called ETrade to cancel. They said it cost money to cancel! That's why they had a minimum balance - so they could steal it when you tried to quit.

That smelled. So instead I signed up for the ETrade checkbook, wrote myself a check for my remaining balance, cashed it, and never dealt with them again.

I tried something similar with a big bank once. I got calls from collections agencies about 9 months later. I ended up paying them about $50 in account fees to save a black mark on my credit report. They were charging me to keep my account open even though I made it very clear that I didn't want that, but I didn't go through all their proper paperwork.

So yeah, it's not like any of these types of establishments care at all about their reputation. They'll gladly ignore your not-to-their-letter cancellation, stop contacting you, and send your $50 usage fees for no actual usage to collections.

I certainly don't condone making it artificially difficult for people to cancel, but there are several reasonable points against accepting some random e-mail as cancellation. It's not authenticated or tamper-proof, for a start. There's no proof of whether or when it was actually delivered. It probably requires a real person to read and act on it, which may delay things like cancelling any recurring payment process, possibly beyond the point where more money has been spent.

For any subscription services I run, if someone mails us asking to cancel, we normally direct them to the on-site cancellation process. This does use all our normal security and log-in procedures, and is fully automated and can be used in moments at any time.

However, if someone did not cancel that way (or in one of the other ways we allow for in our terms) and just blocked their payment, we would be well within our legal rights to take action to recover the money they owed us. In practice we're only charging a small amount in these cases so we'd probably just cancel their service when payment didn't go through, but there is no guarantee any other business would make the same decision, so your strategy is risky.

> There's no proof of whether or when it was actually delivered

If a real person replies to my mail, it's reasonable to expect that it has been delivered.

They're more than welcome to ask any question via mail or initiate the call in the time I specify (outside of my working hours) - which I wrote. Or they can have an online form to do it as well, just like they did when they accepted my money in the first place.

> we would be well within our legal rights to take action to recover the money they owed us

I don't owe any money, since I told company I wanted to cancel before I had to. That is enough done from my part such that the consumer laws protect me and any lawsuit would be dismissed before I even hear about it.

I don't owe any money, since I told company I wanted to cancel before I had to.

Sorry, but that usually isn't how it works.

That is enough done from my part such that the consumer laws protect me and any lawsuit would be dismissed before I even hear about it.

I don't know where you're from, but in any jurisdiction I'm familiar with, it seems unlikely that would be the case.

From a purely practical point of view, I'm not sure it should be the case either, even though I'm generally in favour of reasonable consumer protection laws. For e-mail specifically, there are too many problems with relying on it, particularly if significant amounts of money or other commitments are affected by whether or not a subscription continues.

> Sorry, but that usually isn't how it works.

Depends on the laws I suppose. I Denmark you cannot bind a consumer to pay for a service for any period except for a few special cases (for instance, phone service up to 6 months).

I'm from Denmark, and we have some fairly strong consumer protection laws exactly to prevent things like this. If I cancel any kind of prepaid service, not only do they have to stop charging me money after the periode is finished, they also have to give me back the money equivalent to the remaining period from the end of month + 1 month and forward.

Denmark seems to have relatively strong laws in this respect compared to most places, and from what little I've seen of them, they generally seem quite reasonable.

There is still a question of what constitutes adequate notice of cancellation, though. If you're subscribing to a service based in a country other than your own, there may be other laws that are relevant as well.

Personally, I'm a fan of the symmetry argument: you should be able to cancel a service through equivalent methods to what you could use to sign up for it, and without requiring an unreasonable amount of effort.

> what constitutes adequate notice of cancellation

While that's one aspect of the situation - and yes, a matching notification requirement is sensible - this discussion of "cancellation" is missing the important question: were goods delivered or services used?

Using a newspaper publisher as an example, if we're talking about a simple contract (for either a predefined period or specific termination criteria) where some amount of money is regularly exchanged for the regular delivery on dead trees or electronic means (email) of their publication, then there is a debt that needs to be repaid. The publisher fulfilled their obligations created by the contract.

However, this is a very different situation if no debt has been created. If the contract was a regular payment to gain access to their back archives, if you haven't used their services, then there isn't a debt[1]. Also, I suspect most businesses using contracts of this type will include some sort of clause that terminates all of their obligations if the payments stop.

The point being that there is going to depend heavily on the specifics of the situation, so it's dangerous to generalize.

[1] Some jurisdictions might treat use of the service separately than a "retainer" for access. This doesn't really change anything, though it might make the situation much more complicated.

The point being that there is going to depend heavily on the specifics of the situation, so it's dangerous to generalize.

That is certainly true. I do think a few people here seem to be taking a rather narrow interpretation of when services have been provided, though.

Say you sign up for access to an on-line newspaper, but then as it happens you're busy and don't actually read it. The newspaper still had reporters writing stories, and servers and Internet bandwidth to pay for, and admin staff dealing with the tax records triggered by your subscription, and so on. I don't see why someone should necessarily expect to get back their money under those circumstances.

Perhaps a more obvious example would be an insurance policy. For obvious reasons, you can't get a refund at the end of the period of insurance just because in practice you didn't need to make a claim.

Whenever I've been putting terms and conditions together for a new service, the lawyers always seem very careful about exactly what constitutes offer and acceptance to form the contract, when provision of services starts, how the agreement can be ended and any terms that survive termination, and other details like that.

To consumer protection laws in Denmark state that, you cannot cancel for a periode in the past. If you've prepaid they can keep payment for "30 days end of month", but anything beyond that must be returned. For monthly payment, you must be able to cancel up until the next payment is due. It doesn't matter if the service is used or not.

Out of curiosity, are there any limitations on those Danish rules? For example, suppose someone is running subscription access to a magazine at $5/month, but wants to offer a discount if customers sign up for a whole year to say $45. This sort of promotion isn't unusual, and it's potentially beneficial to both the magazine and the reader, but from your description it wouldn't be viable under Danish law.

Ok, fair enough. Email is an unreliable form of cancellation for a number of reasons. I don't necessarily buy it, but let's accept this for the sake of argument.

But then how exactly is it more secure to accept a cancellation by Random Dude on the phone?

Except to make the customer (especially international customers, which may have to call in the middle of the night and who may incur significant charges) jump through a whole lot of hoops and to make it as difficult as possible to cancel.

To me this reeks like a shit ton of bad faith by the service provider, which has nothing whatsoever to do with security.

But then how exactly is it more secure to accept a cancellation by Random Dude on the phone?

I suppose if they had some sort of credentials set up for phone access then that would be a point in its favour. My bank do have well established security procedures for me to contact them by phone, for example.

To be clear, I am not in any way condoning requiring phone cancellation as a technique for making it artificially difficult or frustrating for someone to cancel when they are within their rights to do so. As you say, it stinks of bad faith.

Call centers are in general quite atrocious as far as authentication goes. Here is one particular egregious example http://krebsonsecurity.com/2015/12/2016-reality-lazy-authent... I cannot remember where I read it, but there are services in Eastern Europe where you can hire someone to field questions at a call center. A calm detached criminal is going to be more convincing than a flustered person who cannot believe that their identity is being questioned.

In general, there is nothing that you can ask me over a phone that cannot be asked to someone pretending to be me who can get the details in a variety of ways. To static questions there are static answers. If you perform two factor authentication properly, this is actually easier over a website than the phone.

They often have you state particulars of the account details. MS will send you an email with a code that you must tell them.

In any case, one isn't more or less secure than the other. The physological effect of speaking to a phone just makes someone feel one is more safe. I'd say that if you send an email to the address you have on the account details, you can reasonably expect to get the right person to the same degree as you would when calling the phone number on the account.

If you tried that with someone who cared, you could get taken to small claims court. And it would end up costing you a lot even if your defense prevailed. In TX at least, companies are not allowed to use lawyers in small claims court.

You are definitely not within your rights to extort people over services not rendered.

That's a very entitled POV.

That's a very entitled POV.

What, exactly, is "entitled" about asking someone to cancel through a simple process on the same web site they signed up with? In any business I run, it takes maybe 10 seconds, and the service is completely transparent about how to do it. It's secure, it's fully automated, and it's in the customer's own interests as well because it will also cancel any recurring payment arrangements with other services immediately and automatically.

What is entitled is things like the person who mailed us the other day, after hours on a Friday and just a few hours before their next subscription payment was due, saying very rudely and aggressively that they weren't using the service and they'd forgotten to cancel before but now they wanted to and they didn't authorise any further payments and they'd do all sorts of nasty things to us if we charged their card again. I mean seriously, they were told three times when they signed up what the charging basis was, and they could have cancelled using the normal facility in far less time than it took to write their little rant. It was only through luck that one of us saw their message in time to act on it, and if we hadn't, it would have been entirely their fault.

You are definitely not within your rights to extort people over services not rendered.

There is nothing remotely extortionate about the business practices we are talking about. The services in question are completely transparent and up-front about both what the charging basis is and how to cancel, and our terms are legally unremarkable.

As for "services not rendered", anyone is free to cancel their subscriptions with any service I help to run at any time, and none of those services use any sort of sneaky long term commitments or ever have. But if you stay signed up, and you have access to the services, you don't get to decide later that you want your money back because you didn't actually use them that month. If you think that's unreasonable, I wish you luck in getting all your insurance premiums refunded if you haven't claimed on them at the end of the year.

> What, exactly, is "entitled" about asking someone to cancel through a simple process on the same web site they signed up with?

The fact that you feel entitled to their hard earned money, despite providing no service or value.

> just a few hours before their next subscription payment was due

What's wrong with that? Are customers required to provide notice? It doesn't cost you anything to back date the termination date if you don't feel like handling it until Monday. It's your system.

> they were told three times when they signed up

Expecting your EULA is binding, and that if you choose to deviate from it, that's because you're just such a great guy, and if you felt like attempting to take their money or tarnish their credit for not using the cancellation avenue you prefer, you'd be perfectly within your rights... All that sounds rather entitled to me.

The fact that you feel entitled to their hard earned money, despite providing no service or value.

We've spent several years building that particular service. We pay the bills for running it whether or not any particular customer uses it, because we have to have enough computers and bandwidth and so on available so that our subscribers can get what they're paying for. Our expenses don't magically disappear just because someone didn't use a service that they had previously used and were still signed up for during a certain period, nor can we telepathically tell whether intermittent users will not actually use the service during the next billing period.

What's wrong with that?

What's wrong with sending an e-mail to an address no-one is likely to be monitoring in real time, denying permission for a fully automated scheduled payment to be taken a few hours later? Well, no-one might read the message before the payment gets taken, for one thing.

It doesn't cost you anything to back date the termination date if you don't feel like handling it until Monday.

You don't seem to understand how this works. The money would already have been taken by the automated systems at that point. That means we would have to actively refund it, which may in itself incur a charge depending on the payment processing services involved. In any case, it requires significant manual intervention to do that and update all the records accordingly, which is at best wasting time we could otherwise spend on more useful activities.

Expecting your EULA is binding, and that if you choose to deviate from it, that's because you're just such a great guy, and if you felt like attempting to take their money or tarnish their credit for not using the cancellation avenue you prefer, you'd be perfectly within your rights...

We are perfectly within our rights. That's the point.

As it happens, we often do go out of our way to deal with messages from our subscribers as helpfully as we can. We take considerable pride in offering very good customer service, and we receive far more positive messages than complaints. In some cases, we will even voluntarily refund someone's subscription fee for a month, perhaps if we believe their situation wasn't entirely their fault or they had some honest misunderstanding about something.

But make no mistake, doing these things costs us time and, in some cases, money. We will do it anyway for most people, because that's the kind of business we want to run. However, we have absolutely no obligation to do so, either legally or morally. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we also had little inclination to do so in the case of someone who by their own admission had known what to do and failed to do it, yet who felt the appropriate reaction to that was to write to us rudely, making an unreasonable demand and immediately threatening us if we failed to comply, instead of simply asking for help if they needed it.

Your business expenses are not my problem. The grocery store doesn't get to charge people when they order too much perishable fruit.

Your of a different opinion, that's your prerogative. Just don't expect everyone to feel the same way. I certainly don't.

I don't care how much you've poured into automating your business processes. That's what you do to increase your profit margins. I only care about two things: My input (time, effort, money), and your output (services provided).

That's just business. If someone is rude, be happy to see the back of them as a customer. Or fire them as a customer. Both those are acceptable. Taking a consumer to court if you think you'd have a case (you wouldn't) is also your right.

It's also their right to take you to small claims, which depending on the state may require you to send an employee to their state, without a lawyer, to justify your actions to a judge. I think you'll probably discover they're not going to be very sympathetic to your perceived right to take people's money just because you have business expenses in predicting future costs.

The grocery store doesn't get to charge people when they order too much perishable fruit.

They probably do if it was a special order placed for a specific customer who then cancelled once the food was already delivered to the store. And why shouldn't they, if it was entirely the customer's fault?

The rest of your post is just wishful thinking, like most of your other comments in this thread, so I see little reason to continue this discussion. Businesses can and do take non-paying customers to court or through a collections process, and routinely win under the kind of circumstances we're talking about.

In particular, cancelling a payment you owe does not in itself relieve you of any contractual obligations you have, it just means you're in default. You might not like it, but it is the law almost everywhere. As I said in another post, try getting a refund on an insurance policy at the end of the year just because you haven't made a claim, or getting part of your phone bill refunded because you didn't need to make a call in a certain period. If you try cancelling your payment without cancelling your service in those cases, and then refuse to pay what you owe, you'll be taken to court or collections, and you'll lose.

If they signed a contract you might have a point.

And you didn't special order anything. Your argument here is all kinds of moving goal posts.

Bottom line: Unless you have an actual contract, don't expect to win. And even then, be prepared to demonstrate that your product worked as advertised and explain why, despite communicating by email with the customer as routine, that was not sufficient for cancellation. Pretty sure you haven't addressed this at all except to say "because I thought I could sell the things I bought!". Sorry, but no, you don't get to change the rules just because yours is an Internet service. Especially not for a month to month pre-pay authorization. That's just ridiculous. I haven't even seen pre-paid cellular networks try to pull that scam.


Bottom line: Unless you have an actual contract, don't expect to win.

We do have an actual contract, the moment someone signs up and pays us money under our advertised terms. It is as clear and legally binding as if we sat down at a table and signed a piece of paper. I suspect that not understanding this is the cause of many of the incorrect things you've been saying in this thread.

Edit: Just to be reiterate in case it wasn't clear from my other comments, one of the points in those terms specifically says what the process for cancelling is and that an e-mail is not sufficient, for precisely the kinds of reasons we've been talking about on HN today.

You're trying to claim fees for services not rendered for a pre-paid monthly service are rightfully yours (again without addressing the email) because you've made a claim in a ToS.

And you think that'd stand up in small claims. I'd like to be a fly on the wall when that gets tested. ;-) And the collection agency willing to sign on as a co-defendant? That better be some monthly subscription fee.

Also, there's no way you win a chargeback claim in this case: https://www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnwin1213/stopp...

You're going to have a rough time explaining why you thought you were within your rights to ignore her cancellation notice. Do you also think your ToS would allow you to ignore certified mail? You might want to talk to an actual lawyer.

You're talking hypotheticals. We actually do this, and we actually do talk to real lawyers. On the rare occasions when someone has tried their luck, we have never lost so much as a chargeback.

Of course, most of the time it never gets that far, because as I said before, we try to provide very good customer service. Among other things, that means we are up-front about our pricing and we give our subscribers quick and effective ways to manage their subscriptions. I wouldn't want to run a business that did the sort of shady things mentioned elsewhere in this discussion. We get very few complaints in the first place, and in reality it's far more common for us to help out someone who made an honest mistake and then get a nice mail back.

All I'm saying here is that we don't have any obligation to go beyond what our terms and the relevant laws require, and in particular, we don't have to accept some random e-mail as cancellation when we explicitly say we won't, for good reasons, and when we provide a quick and effective alternative that is readily available to all subscribers. I honestly can't see why anyone would have a problem with that.

Why are you investing so much effort in debating a straw man argument? Is there a particular real world case you are thinking about?

Boredom? I dunno. Didn't feel like watching TV I guess.

Since he/she cited a specific case however, doesn't seem like "strawman" qualifies.

A company representative is notified of cancellation. A company offering a month to month pre-pay service isn't entitled to anything else. End of story. IMO. Anything else is unethical.

That seems perfectly reasonable. No you're not within your rights to dick with people in bad faith, no matter what a ToS says. You can put whatever you'd like in there. Doesn't mean it'll pass muster when you're in front of a judge.

Beyond that she (the customer) is perfectly within her rights to cancel at any time. So the "but but but, I spent money!" is the real straw-man here. Silhoutte would have considered it his/her obligation to spend that money either way, the customer could have cancelled at the literal last second, through her/his preferred online method even, and that doesn't change a thing. There's a strawman.

Mostly it's probably because I had AT&T try something similar on me in the past year, trying to hold me liable for $1,300 for UVerse service at an address I've never lived at, going as far as to pursue collections against me.

They and the collections dropped their claim pretty quickly when I made it clear I'd be taking them to small claims over this.

Those are different circumstances. I suppose it just irks me that some people think they have a "right" to your property because you were rude?

It's nobody's "right" to dip into your wallet for a prepaid service. It's not moral. It's not ethical. Can you think of another service where that'd fly? I can't. The utility companies only seek to recover services rendered. Prepaid phone services will simply suspend service until you pay up. It's your right to suspend payments on your credit card to your MVNO whenever you like. It's their right to suspend service if you do. It's not their right to do much else.

That seems totally fair.

In Denmark, companies are required to clearly and visibly state things such as total price - if they fail to do so, the "contract" is invalid. If they don't provide a reasonable way to cancel services (relative to the signup procedure), the company have no case. So stating in a ToS that I must call to cancel, when I signed up with nothing but a webform and an email, would not be accepted.

In Denmark, companies are required to clearly and visibly state things such as total price - if they fail to do so, the "contract" is invalid.

Something approximately the same as that is true across the EU under the recent changes to the consumer protection rules.

On your other points, I'll just mention that this subthread was originally about whether accepting e-mail as a cancellation method was appropriate, not so much the original topic of trying to force people to call as an aggressive way to deter cancellation. It seems we all agree that making it excessively difficult for someone to cancel when they're entitled to is scummy behaviour, and I imagine the law in many places would take a similar view.

Btw, I'd like to add that if you provide a simple way to cancel on the web, I'd be more than satisfied with it. If I send an email, I probably couldn't figure out where to cancel after 5-10 min.

For what it's worth, if an average user of any service I'm talking about couldn't figure out how to cancel within even 1 minute, I'd consider that a significant usability failure. Typically we have an obvious button for it on whatever the main control panel or dashboard for their account is, and we rarely have more than a confirmation button and perhaps an optional question or two to complete the process after that.

Some people would probably argue that we make it too easy for customers to leave, but as I've said, we prefer to run these services a certain way, and if it doesn't completely maximise profit then that's just too bad. It's not uncommon for some of these services to have a pattern of seasonal memberships, so from an entirely self-interested point of view, the trust we earn by making it easy to sign up and easy to cancel is probably of some value anyway.

Would it be fair that if one cannot cancel by email then one cannot subscribe by mail since the same risks exist (of authentication and tamper-proof) exist?

Yes, I think that's entirely reasonable.

Of course, you normally can't sign up for services that require payment via e-mail anyway, since no-one credible is going to ask for enough details that they can charge you through an insecure medium like e-mail.

You are lucky you got a reply. All I got was another bill.

There's even worse ones - Gyms that make you sign up for a membership that auto-renews every year and bills your credit card monthly.

They require you mail a physical letter requesting cancellation via certified mail! And you must prove you are the account holder and then wait 6-8 weeks for them to process your cancellation, so you might just end up auto-renewed for another year unless you cancelled two months in advance.

It's actually a wonder some of these business models based on theft by deception/fraud don't get prosecuted/sued out of existence...

Every year there's a genuine effort to reign in payday lenders in my state. Alas, those businesses know how to lobby. Bills die in committee, key votes won't budge, etc.

"Petty" issues like this don't light the activists' fire sufficiently to bring the heat required to push thru change. Another similar issue is predator towing operations. Every one agrees they have to go, but they're far down on the list of priorities.

I just cancelled a membership at a gym which utilises these cancellation practices. When I found out that I'd have to mail a physical letter, I called my bank instead.

If you use your credit card, you can wiggle your way out of it if you explain that these cancellation processes are absurd. Call the gym and ask if they'll cancel your membership over the phone first. After they refuse, tell your credit card company about it and ask them to try calling the gym with you on the line to get your membership cancelled. If the gym persists in its refusal you should be able to dispute and block the charge.

For me though this happened to be linked to my debit card (and I never ever put monthly billables on my debit card so I'm not sure what I was thinking when I signed up). However, because I had no other services linked to my debit card, I was able to have my bank just send me a new card and that was that.

If you have a signed contract with the gym, then just cancelling the card account may be a good way to find yourself sent to collections. Eliminating the payment method just means you are not paying them any more, it doesn't mean that you aren't accruing charges.

As annoying as these cancellation procedures are, they are almost always laid out in the up-front contract (especially for a gym, where you signed up in person). The time to object is when you sign the contract, not when you're trying to cancel.

(Not that I don't <strikethrough>hate</strikethrough> like this practice and find it shady and annoying, but wouldn't want people to wind up in deep trouble as a result).

Collections is a boogeyman. No company actively recruiting new non-distressed customers wants to have a reputation for harassing customers who fight back against pickpocketing. They'd rather let the occasional savvy customer go and continue signing up more rubes.

That seems like an awful lot of hassle, compared to whatever arcane unsub process they have in place.

A agency of some sort that protected consumers from these sorts of business practices would make a lot of sense. I wonder if Elizabeth Warren is doing anything...

My state's current Attorney General, who has jurisdiction, is pretty good at this sort of thing. Previous guy was quite a bit more laissez faire.

Newspapers are so desperate, they'll do anything. The answer is only use a customer focused card, or insist on invoicing, preferably where you pay in arrears.

My local paper even plays games with invoicing. They bill on a weird cycle (10 week) and will send you out of cycle/overlapping invoices that you don't actually owe. Sometimes those out of cycle invoices casually jack the rate up 20-30% -- if you pay it, you're accepting new terms.

My local paper does the same thing. Didn't realize this was their new strategy and that the billing department was not incompetent. They will send fake bills ahead of time with higher rates and say that my previous weeks have run out but my wife keeps everything logged and sets them straight everytime. Also long as you are willing to "play chicken" to cancel the service, they are willing to renegotiate to your terms (just like Comcast.)

Why not just cancel? Is it really worth having this battle, over a newspaper? I'll do it for my internet because that's an esssenit to survive.

It should be, I think, a reasonable demand of reputable business that any subscription must be able to be cancelled via the same medium as it is signed up for.

Many European countries have a law that makes this a requirement. I haven't encountered this pattern for quite some years (in The Netherlands).

T-mobile! Worst cancellation experience ever. Won't even let you cancel in-store. Should be illegal IMO.

I suspect T-Mobile is just deeply and embarrassingly incompetent, rather than actively user hostile. Everything, including spending more money with them, often takes a phone call. Changing plans online is impossible about half the time (depending on what you're trying to do, and it doesn't fail more often for downgrading service than upgrading). They are a phone company that barely knows how to do business as a phone company; they definitely aren't a technology or internet company, as they fail remarkably on those fronts.

> deeply and embarrassingly incompetent

Correct. Former vendor, worked with their cell network crew on many occasions.

To be more fair, all the large carriers are mostly laden with corporate procedures and bureaucracy so it's hard for worker bees to make progress even if they know what's needed. T-Mo's procedures are just more broken.

Kept getting bills every month even though I had cancelled and I was supposed to be on the free for life plan of 200MB. The representative acknowledges it was their fault every time. They removed the item from the bill every time within fifteen minutes of me dialing.

Then I changed address. They might still be billing me for all I know.

If you are in the US (reasonable guess for a(n ex-)T-Mobile customer), you might want to exercise your right to pull a free credit report check and make sure it's not screwing it up.

Since it is actually a bit challenging to correctly pull your free credit report, start here: https://www.ftc.gov/faq/consumer-protection/get-my-free-cred... (Simply Googling "free credit report" and clicking willy-nilly can lead to sadness.)

In fact I'm overdue to pull mine myself; thanks for reminding me.

One time I was trying to cancel my plan with Bally's fitness in New York and they wanted me to send a physical letter to Nebraska or something. I filed a better business bureau complaint and it was taken care of very quickly.

24 Hour Fitness has a similar policy you can put your account on indefinite hold at a location but to cancel you have to mail some letter to their headquarters. Stupid bullshit to keep their numbers up artificially.

My local fitness place had a deal where for $5 a month they'd put your membership 'on hold'. What a deal! I discovered by erasing my credit card on their payment site I could do it for $0 a month.

Just be careful that they don't take you to collections for "missed payments". Regardless though, fuck these kinds of practices where signing up is easy and leaving is hard. That should be something massively illegal with fines in the millions to billions for the number of affected customers.

Here's my trick: use a virtual credit card number (which is safer, anyway, since you don't expose the # of your original CC), and revoke it when you want to cancel. Or, make a VCC# with a $ limit. I don' t know if anyone other than Citibank has them anymore. They are fantastic.

Bank of America has them; their Apple Pay support is built on them. You can create one directly via their online banking interface, although it's pretty deeply buried and (IIRC) requires Flash, which is weird.

Citi used to have this with their DoubleCash card. It's now missing from their website. Looks like BofA is the only ones doing this now :<

Good to know. This is a phenomenal feature and I'd like to see more banks offer it.

In general, managing subscriptions for each media source sucks. I'd rather trust one company to manage it and have it all in one place rather than a few different ones with varying level of quality.

Got one of those for wine yesterday - get the initial cheap (but not free offer) purchase, and then only through well-learned suspicion do I check through enough to realise they've auto-enrolled me on a £25/month subscription.

On the upside they answered the phone immediately outside office hours and it was all cancelled in less than 30 seconds, so it's not always a hard sell on the phone

LinkedIn's "free trial" does this too (although they are /somewhat/ transparent with it). They send invites to trial their premium product pretty regularly, but in order to activate the trial you have to essentially sign up for the service, and then remember to cancel again before the trial runs out and you start getting billed.

To cancel my gym membership I need to mail them a letter. It's laughable, but this shit works. I still belong to the gym

WatchESPN (at least their college app). Requires a personal email to cancel, can do everything else on their site. So tired of those guys. They got an extra 20 euro from me by using this too, so I guess it works? (If they want no money from me ever again).

You were going to cancel anyways, so they're still up ahead.

Comcast does this as well. It's actually worse than just cancelling. You can't even downgrade to a lower internet speed without calling, but you can upgrade to something more expensive online.

Yup, and when you call to downgrade, it's not a quick conversation. They have to try to negotiate with you and try to actually sell you more when you're asking for less. The person I spoke to finally capitulated after about 10 minutes of trying to sell me packages, ask me what my internet was used for, trying to explain why I might want not-their-cheapest thing, trying to tell me it's a bad deal, etc. It was super annoying and a stressful experience honestly to drop from 100mbit peak download to 35mbit service; $65 a month vs $105 for the 100mbit, 100mbit came as a package deal with basic cable which I didn't use since I don't have a TV. It was $10 cheaper than without TV, priced at $60/month for 6 months as a promo, the TV bundled so they can inflate their subscriber numbers to attempt to publicly minimize the effects of cord cutting.

I'd do anything to have a different ISP, but my apartment building has the choice of Comcast or 768k ATT DSL for the same price since I'd have to also get a phone line.

So I've discovered that the trick to a faster downgrade phone call is to call and say you want to cancel your service. Then you get someone who's trying to keep you as a customer, and they are willing to do more to please you.

I have a few credit cards dedicated to this purpose, that I cancel when I run into this problem. This article made me realize how messed up it is that we have come to this.

I don't think cancelling a credit card always works. I've had cards that have been cancelled that still process new charges for some reason.

call center hours at the globe are listed as 6AM-5PM M-f, 8AM-2PM Sat/Sun. Seems pretty generous to me.

Keep in mind this is 140 year old company which can't change all at once.

eFax in Europe also does that.

For anyone else who runs into problems with eFax. E-mail them, say you're deaf and therefore unable to call. It worked for me. Often dark patterns have great dark patterns that work in response.

This is lying. I don't want to lie.

Look ye, to http://Truebill.com for relief!

(disclaimer, I am an investor)

Wow, look at this huge list for how to cancel from these kinds of sites:


That's pretty awesome. I'm just going to check this list from now on before I put my credit card info into a web form.

How does Truebill make money? It seems a little too good to be true to be free. I mean, I can think of a bunch of perfectly acceptable ways to make money off this (selling anonymous information about what makes subscribers unsubscribe to companies, for example), I would just like to know before I sign up what exactly I am signing up for.

Founder of Truebill here...

We plan to make money by recommending new services (i.e. we see you have X and Y, would you like to try Spotify).

You've missed a golden opportunity to claim "most ironic business model". Go ahead, charge that monthly fee :)

eFax does it everywhere. I paid $0.99 to send a fax and ended up with two monthly statements for $16.99 that were not refundable. It's disgusting and it should be illegal.

You should check out YC-backed Hellofax:


eFax is part of patent troll J2. They own patents on something like "fax, but with the Internet" and go after every VoIP company that gets big enough.

What would happen if you send them an email stating your wish to cancel and then asked your CC company to deny any charges from them? I'd think that would be a legal and valid way to cancel any service.

They send to collections. Personally I find a certified letter to their registered agent is the best method when I think a company might be shady and I don't wanna wait on the phone.

How do you usually go about finding the address of a company's registered agent?

For the states I've been curious about in the United States, each state's Secretary of State usually has a search form for corporations, LLCs, and limited partnerships. examples: California (http://kepler.sos.ca.gov/) and Washington (http://www.sos.wa.gov/corps/).

Interestingly, Boston Globe's registered agent is empty! http://corp.sec.state.ma.us/CorpWeb/CorpSearch/CorpSummary.a...

It depends where you are, but many places have something broadly similar. Here in England, for example, any limited company must have a registered address and mail to that address must be read. The registered address must be shown in various places by the company, and can also be checked by anyone through Companies House, which is the government authority that deals with such things. These are all legal requirements here, and the authorities will not look kindly on a company that doesn't follow the rules, with potentially serious implications for its directors.

What's the registered agent of a company?

It's the person on record who should be contacted for legal matters, correspondence, etc.

Essentially, if these things ever get to court if you contacted someone other than the agent they can claim they weren't notified, didn't know, etc, if they are shady, but a registered letter to the registered agent is like the gold standard of having contacted them.

I removed subscriptions from a few services that way and none gave me any problems. Even reactivated some of the accounts later on when I decided to go back. Most of those used paypal, so I think they got cancel notifications straight away.

I can't remember the names of most of the companies though. One was definitely Match, because they expect you to call them to cancel (or did at the time)

I'd think that would be a legal and valid way to cancel any service.

Please be careful. That is not necessarily the case, and depending on your local laws you may be left owing money, going to collections, and/or having your credit damaged for non-payment.

Wow, how many people want to pay $350/year for the Boston Globe? YOu can get an cell phone data plan for that much that gives you the entire internet.

I can see why they are focusing on finding subscribers who think they are only paying a fraction of that.

I do, happily. I subscribe to the Economist too. In the scheme of things $350/year isn't much when you can spend that much in a weekend on gardening supplies.

But the globe has also never charged my that much. They've been charging me roughly $200/year for the last 3 years for a digital subscription.

The people that were paying that money to buy the paper version of the newspaper, for example.

There are people that might find enough value in the journalism of the Boston Globe to want to spend that kind of money on it, compared to the "entire internet" that can be, broadly, not the most reliable source of information (wether the Boston Globe is a good newspaper I have no idea, but it might be for some people).

That is a completely different discussion than looking at the deceptive tactics they use to make people that don't want to pay that amount to actually subscribe.

roughly 60,000 people who want to know what's going on around them in terms of local government, arts, sports, ordinary people, etc. The Globe is about 50 times better at these things than any other source.

Whenever I get web overlay spam trying to get me to sign up for even more spam, I run whois and enter their domain contact address.

I remember back in the early 2000s getting pestered by a particularly annoying junk fax spammer calling my home line every morning at 4-5AM. Fortunately, thanks to being an early adopter of VOIP, and someone with more free time than I have now, I could have a little fun. Turned out the origin numbers for the junk fax calls were not spoofed, and always came from a block of phone numbers that matched a pattern. So I did a few simple web searches and identified the company behind it (some marketing company in Florida). It didn't take too long to get the personal phone number of that company's CEO. Then just programmed the VOIP box to forward all calls from that pattern of numbers back to the company's CEO. It took about a week for the calls to stop.


Typically, merely putting their letter in the outbox and getting it returned to them is enough to get them to stop, at least after a few times. As a side benefit, it gives money to the USPS, wastes theirs, and saves you have to walk to the trash!

I was under the impression that attaching business return mail to another package didn't work any more - it'd obviously be an easy loophole to close.

Completely agree with the rest of the approach though. The real question is what to do with the "broadcast" flyers the post office has gotten involved in spamming. Stamp "return to sender" and stuff in blue mailbox? I don't see that employee frustration adding up to any change.

I smell a startup. I think more than a few people would pay for a service like that.

Nice idea. I might turn that in to a Chrome extension.

what Whois service is best to use, or do I have it wrong?

I did a quick Google and there's a few free whois API services that would fit the bill. They (presumably) all return the same data. So.. whichever works.

Alternatively a far more interesting (but much more difficult to set up) solution would be to use chrome.runtime.connectNative to execute the native whois command on the user's OS.

> would be to use chrome.runtime.connectNative to execute the native whois command on the user's OS

Can you elaborate please? I've taken a very brief look at the chrome.runtime API and didn't see how to.

There's some detailed documentation here https://developer.chrome.com/extensions/nativeMessaging and a sample app (for Chromium) here https://chromium.googlesource.com/chromium/src/+/master/chro...

Essentially you need to add a native messaging app manifest to Chrome to tell it about the app on the host, and then Chrome reads that JSON file to find where to execute it, what to use to talk to it (eg stdio), what it's called, etc. On Windows the location of the JSON file has to be added to the registry (which is prohibitively annoying), but on OSX and Linux it's just saved in a specific folder. Once you've done that it's a simple case of calling a method on the chrome.runtime object, or setting up a couple of listeners to actually make the call.

whois already doesn't work for a lot of the new gTLDs and ICANN is in the process of reinventing it. So be prepared for loads of edge cases and keeping up with ICANNs flimsy mind.


Come on, don't be so negative.

Didn't mean to be negative, just informative. Try any of the new gTLDs, e.g. "stuffin.space", "rms.sexy" or "abc.xyz", they won't work.

Or for a moderately amusing confirmation of ICANNs assertion that the current model is broken, try to whois microsoft.com, apple.com or google.com (NSFW language).

I think the current plan is to make whois data mandatory for commercial entities, and abolish the current decentralized model, but AFAIK no work has started yet.

Any negativity conveyed is purely by virtue of the grim state of affairs.

Edit: I just checked your profile and you probably know a lot more about the situation than I do. Feel free to correct me where I'm wrong! Your domain "gtld.club" does not work either, by the way :)

Robtex is generally good at finding info on domains and networks.

Nice, but doesn't work if they require confirmation.

Me, I use Chaos Computer Club's https://anonbox.net/ :)

Accounts are created on the fly, and last just 24hr.

Anonbox's SSL cert isn't working in Google Chrome for me, so I'll plug a similar service that I use and like: http://10minutemail.com/10MinuteMail/index.html

No affiliation, just enjoy the utility.

Thanks, it's always good to have alternatives :)

CCC is using a self-signed cert, and I haven't vetted it. But then, I'm not using it for anything that requires security. It just allows me to get a confirmation link.

Well it at least sends them one message, so that is working enough.

Obviously I take different tacks depending how much I want to access the site. In this case I'm talking about the subscribe-or-close popups, obviously not a real account or anything.

I haven't tried Whois before, in this case I came up with dns@bostonglobe.com

What do you mean you "enter their domain contact address"?

They probably use the email address of the registrant of the domain name as the sign-up address for their own website.

He means he gives them their own address to spam, not his.

info@bostonglobe.com in this case

I've been postmaster@aol.com for over a decade now.

We can fix the cancellation problem by forcing that a signup and cancellation must be symmetric by nature (ie. signing up online means that cancellation should also be possible online).

In the United States, practices like this fall under the Federal Trade Commission's authority. They offer guidance here: https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/plain-language/bu...

It looks like some of the Globe's practices are toeing the line. They probably have a bunch of lawyers making sure they aren't crossing the line and are obeying the letter of the law but not the spirit.

The immediate thought I had reading this was...if they canned the lawyers would that end up being a larger cost savings then the revenue gained from toeing the line?

That's just sad. I guess I can understand the motivation, though that doesn't justify anything. It's becoming very difficult to monetize online newspapers, and they are forced to resort to such unethical practices to make ends meet.

Newspapers really have missed a trick or two in the transition to the internet.

In the main, I agree: They got caught napping and didn't keep up so that's their own fault.

That being said up until a few months ago, I didnt't read papers or watch the news on TV since it's all stage-managed nonsense but I decided to take out a FT weekend subscription after buying one on a whim one day.

I must say it was very enjoyable reading a newspaper with quality stories and no fluff or click-bait titles and so on.

I don't consider tabloids to be anything other than literary fast-food for the masses but I am thoroughly enjoying reading my FT on a Saturday and Sunday morning with a cup of tea.

Oh, it's only about £10 a month too.

They are not forced. It is a choice.

I, for one, won't be mourning their disappearance from the face of this planet. It's long overdue in my opinion.

Thank you Austria (and Europe) for the tight Consumer Protection Act - makes all this illegal.

I wish expiring credit card numbers existed to kill this sort of online quasi-scam (let's call it what it is).

I'd like to say, "$0.99 a week for 4 weeks? Cool, here's a temporary number that expires in exactly one month. Please cut my subscription off after then."

Of course, I suspect that the benefit of the entrenched system in the US for everyone but consumers will guarantee that this will be really difficult to accomplish in reality.

> I wish expiring credit card numbers existed

Many banks actually offer exactly this feature. You set a dollar limit and an expiry date. E.g. Bank of America ShopSafe: https://www.bankofamerica.com/privacy/accounts-cards/shopsaf... My Swedish bank offers the same thing and even has an app to generate card #s

> My Swedish bank offers the same thing and even has an app to generate card

That's a really great idea that I've never seen before - would love to see more banks have this feature

Which Swedish bank is that? My bank used to offer expiring VISA cards but removem them claiming 3D Secure offers the same protection. (Obviously it does not...)

Swedbank still support "e-kort" as they call them

Discover used to offer this. Linked to a separate subdomain and used a Flash applet to generate the card numbers. Then after a couple of years they cancelled it without explanation.

privacy.com offers this.

CC companies would never go for that. But an independant like Apple might be able to with their temporary CC number system that they have already.

Uuuh, this exists at A LOT of banks.

Would never have expected that from the Boston Globe. Can't imagine how the step up in year two is even legal.

The web consultants and senior (non-journalist) execs will make money. The Boston Globe itself will lose respectability. They're getting shafted too but don't realise it.

Ah, the good folks at meclabs and their CEO, doctor Flint, phd, who lies that he has a phd.

WSJ only allows cancellation by phone as well

The New York Times also does this and it feels dirty.

https://myaccount.nytimes.com/mem/cancel.html?id=10434447 We're sorry to see you go. To cancel your subscription quickly and easily, please call Customer Care at 877-698-5635 Hours of Operation: Monday — Friday: 7:30 a.m. ET through 9:00 p.m. ET Saturday and Sunday: 7:30 a.m. ET through 5:00 p.m. ET

Not only does it feel dirty, sometimes it is dirty. I've posted my experience on HN before (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10334291), but here it is again:

I had a terrible experience with a NYT digital-only subscription, and I'll likely never subscribe again.

I had a subscription for a while that I hadn't been using. I only used their site when linked to it from another (like HN). I tried to cancel online, but there's no way to—you need to cancel over the phone. So, I did, sitting on hold for close to a half hour. Bad experience, but I wish it had ended there.

Fast-forward two months, and I started getting emails that my subscription was past-due. Then I come to realize that they had continued to bill me every 2 weeks, but the payments had just started failing because my card expired.

I emailed CS, mentioning that I had cancelled my subscription and I was being billed by mistake, and to make sure my account got cancelled this time. They "couldn't do anything about it" because my account was in their "grace period", and that I would continue to get the past due emails until the grace period ended.

I ended up filing chargebacks for each charge after I had originally cancelled. To my knowledge, they never replied to or contested the chargebacks (does the customer usually get this info, if they do? it's the first and only chargeback I'd ever filed).

Audible, although I'm unsure about cancellation, only allows setting your account to "suspended" by phone.

I do this because I'm unable to keep up with one audiobook per month, but still really enjoy their service.

Also, Rackspace email (paid hosting by email address) requires you to contact customer service to delete email accounts you are not using. Not quite making a phone, but still requires going through a "wait and communicate with a human being" ten-minute process rather than a simple click to delete an account.

> Audible, although I'm unsure about cancellation, only allows setting your account to "suspended" by phone.

I've been able to both put my account on hold and cancel several times _online_ in the past 5 years.

I cancelled Audible online. I was still annoyed because I signed up for the free month through a couple of clicks on a kindle and then because it isn't integrated with the Amazon account I forgot about it.

What happens with international subscribers?

I can only speak for the NYT but they have a toll free number in my country, though the line was pretty bad (cut off twice).

Next time, I'll try to execute my right to cancel by the same means I subscribed, though. I don't think they will argue with you and if they did, I'd just fill a chargeback with my CCC.

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