If you took advantage of a promotional offer over Christmas and new year, you could get a nasty surprise when you next check your bank statement.
Angry consumers have told The Times about payments deducted from their accounts when they say it was not clear they had given companies permission to set up a direct debit.
One of the retailers was Virgin Wines, which sold 145,000 cases of wine in December, partly by offering discounts through third-party apps, leaflet promotions and websites.
Patrick Milner, 26, a parliamentary worker, says a half-price promotion on a case of wine and a bottle of prosecco (£48) landed him with an unexpected bill of £25. He responded to a promotion on the O2 Priority app then discovered he had been charged for membership to the Discovery Winebank, a subscription-based service. He complained and received a full refund two days later. Mr Milner says: “I don’t think the subscription was properly mentioned and, if it was, it must have been buried in small print.”
Another Virgin Wines customer, James Calder, 26, says that he was enrolled without realising after he responded to the same offer through the American Express site. “When I was ordering the wine, at no point was there any tick box, disclaimer or notice about subscribing to the wine bank. I only realised that I was signed up when I got a confirmation email two weeks ago saying that Virgin had just processed my next payment of £25.” He received a full refund after complaining.
Education worker Ellen Dickman paid £1 for a three-month trial of tastecard, which offers discounts on restaurants and cinemas. She found herself unable to use the card, and forgot about it until near the end of the trial period. “The end date on my card was February 3. I thought: ‘I’ve got a few days left until I need to cancel.’ On January 30, though, I got a PayPal notification that £39.99 had been taken.”
Ms Dickman thought the terms and conditions said the card could be cancelled until 5pm on the day before it expired, but they said “the day before the renewal date” — four days earlier. She said: “It seems to me that everything is rather hazy so that they can take money in this way.”
Student Riya Viegas also tried to cancel before the expiry date but after the renewal date. She says: “I used the tastecard once at a restaurant and once to buy cinema tickets. I would never have agreed to renew the membership.”
When she complained on Twitter, tastecard said it sent customers a cancellation reminder “at least five times”. “I received it only once, in the first email they sent to me.” Tastecard’s terms and conditions say that it will not be liable “for any non-receipt of communication from us, including non-receipt of the reminder”.
A spokesman said: “The renewal date is 4 days prior to the expiry date for the simple reason that it takes 4 days for us to print and post the new card to the customer. We make this clear on all our communications starting with the initial sign up page where this is the first part of the terms & conditions. Then again on the confirmation email they receive immediately after purchase and furthermore on the letter that arrives with the tastecard attached. This information is also on the renewal reminder email 30 days before the renewal is due and up to 7 other times on various email communications.”
Last year there was a furore over Amazon Prime which was criticised, by the Times columnist Giles Coren among others, for charging customers £79 a year for membership to a premium service. The Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Amazon had to withdraw an email it sent to customers offering Prime free for 30 days, saying that it failed to highlight the paid subscription that begins after the trial.
The case prompted the Committee of Advertising Practice to warn that “hidden costs associated with trial offers can end up costing consumers a considerable sum of money”.
Matt Wilson, a spokesman for the Advertising Standards Authority, said: “There is nothing wrong with promoting free trials or offers but if consumers might be led into a subscription, they have to be fully aware of that fact. Consumers shouldn’t have to play detective. We would encourage any customer who believes they have been misled to come to us.”
Research by TopCashback.co.uk last year revealed that 42 per cent of Britons are paying for at least one subscription they don’t use — most often gym memberships, credit reports, TV streaming services and music streaming plans.
Jay Wright, the chief executive of Virgin Wines, said the confusion caused by the wording on promotional offers was “absolutely tiny” since the company signed up 30,000 customers between October and December. “We try to be completely upfront about everything that happens. It is not good for us if people do not want to be members of the scheme, and there is no compulsion to stay in it.”
He said that all advertising literature was approved by trading standards and that the £25 subscription was clear in the terms and conditions.