Fabletics' sneaky subscription tactics add to online shoppers' woes

More than two million people have unwittingly signed up for expensive subscriptions they didn’t want at a variety of firms

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The Independent Online

We all enjoy snapping up a bargain, and it’s become easier than ever online. But companies are getting sneaker than ever with their marketing tricks, with many tricking people into costly monthly subscriptions that they don’t want, often can’t afford, and have difficulty cancelling or getting refunds.

Citizens Advice has warned that more than two million people had fallen victim to the trick, which is typically used by people flogging slimming pills and beauty treatments, but also by a variety of other seemingly unscrupulous sellers.

The companies trick you into unknowingly agreeing to a series of payments to be taken from your debit or credit card. Known as continuous payment authorities, these are often used for buying products online such as e-book subscriptions or video streaming.

Details of the ongoing payments tend to be hidden within terms and conditions, with the companies then sneakily getting your debit or credit card details by asking you to pay for postage or packaging.

On Monday Emma Donoghue discovered she had become a victim of the trick. “On checking my PayPal account I noticed that despite paying a £26 cost to purchase an outfit from Fabletics, there was a subsequent sum of £44 also debited from my account this week. This was not an amount I had agreed to or was aware of,” she says.

We’ve warned on these pages in the past about Fabletics’ unpleasant tactics. Last summer we reported about two 16-year-old girls who fell victim and had their PayPal accounts completely cleaned out by the firm. Judging by Emma’s story, the gymwear firm, which uses the Hollywood actress Kate Hudson in its advertising, has made little attempt to improve its act.

“I spoke with Fabletics to ask them for a refund. However it turned out there is some small print that means, totally unbeknownst to me, I have signed up for a subscription totalling more than £520 a year!” said Emma. “I would never knowingly have done this and think the small print is deceptive.”

We agree, and we’ve tackled Fabletics about it in the past when it claimed it didn’t try to trick people into an expensive subscription. The company told a similar story to Emma. It said: “Fabletics provides customers with multiple notifications – including on the home page and in six other places before a customer checks out for the first time – of the details of the membership model.

“In addition, first-time customers are required to confirm that they understand the website terms and conditions, including the VIP Membership Programme terms and conditions, by affirmatively checking a tick box prior to registration.” That sounds pretty thorough, doesn’t it? So why are so many people left feeling badly treated by the firm?

Emma said: “Their explanation is extraordinary, as I recall simply going online, finding myself a selection of clothing I liked and placing an order, as I have with other online stores. However, none of these has been quite as underhand as Fabletics. I find the business set-up absolutely immoral and as someone who shops online regularly, it is the first time I have been stung by such a sneaky set-up.”

Emma was understandably extremely angry, and to help her and other victims of similar marketing schemes, Citizens Advice is calling on credit and debit card issuers to tell people when a recurring payment will be taken, giving them the option to cancel or dispute the payments.

The charity’s chief executive, Gillian Guy, said: “As the Government launches a review into terms and conditions in consumer contracts there’s an opportunity to make much clearer the exact amount people have to pay when they sign up to recurring payments.”

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