23rd October 2017

Matt Allwright: Subscription traps


By Matt Allwright
Matt is a journalist and presenter of the BBC’s Watchdog and Rogue Traders
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I’m great at giving advice. People come up to me in the street all the time and ask me for help with aspects of their consumer life. I give it to them, but all the while, I’m like a chap in a cartoon with an angel on one shoulder, quietly applauding my public spirit, and a devil on the other, shouting: “Oh yeah, buddy, and when was the last time YOU got quotes from three different roofers? NEVER!”

A classic example of this kind of hypocrisy is my failure to make regular checks of my bank accounts for hidden subscription traps. If you’re not familiar with the term, a subscription trap is a leaf-and branch-covered money pit, into which you fall when you say ‘yes’ to an appealing opening offer that’s either free or a matter of pennies.

Typically, these used to be for beauty products, but there are now holes on the forest floor for your money everywhere – for streaming services, magazines, delivery services and mobile phones; you name it. What you can’t see beneath this lush, green, surface foliage is the mesh of undecipherable legalese from which you’ll never escape, and the curare-covered pointy sticks of sneaky monthly payments that will hurt you without you ever feeling a thing. And they never, ever end. Ever.

This is made possible through the Machiavellian mechanism of the ‘continuous payment authority’ or CPA. At some point in history, some genius in the banking world invented a way for firms to be able to take money from our accounts at any time with a single authorisation from the customer and without any further notification to that customer of payments. I don’t know who it was, but he or she is responsible for the involuntary haemorrhaging of millions and millions of pounds, unseen, from people’s accounts.

This is a spectacularly successful way for firms to make money in your sleep. You often don’t know you’ve agreed to it, you don’t notice it’s gone, and you’re unlikely to go to court for £5.99 a month. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t change.

The Budget last spring proposed legislation that would prevent firms taking the sums without letting you know, but here’s the worry: we now have so much information to machete through in our consumer lives, will even these notifications just get lost? Be careful people, it’s a jungle out there!