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Online subscription traps: how to protect yourself

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Imagine you’ve downloaded some free software for your new camera, and you get an e-mail a few days later containing a bill. It says you took out a two-year subscription when you signed up as a user. The provider threatens you with legal action if you don’t pay. 

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    Isabelle Näf

    Isabelle Näf, an Internet law expert at AXA-ARAG, explains what to do if you get caught out by a subscription trap and how you can spot online fraudsters’ fiendish tricks.

First of all, Isabelle Näf, what is a subscription trap exactly?

We use the terms “subscription trap” and “cost trap” when a supposedly free offer – be it a recipe, a greetings card or a piece of software – turns out not to be free at all once you’ve entered into a contract. Sellers usually hide the pricing information in very small print that’s hard to find, and they often target children and young people specifically.

Do  I have to respond to this demand for payment and pay the bill?

We recommend that you always reply to the demand for payment in writing in cases like this and contest the claim that you’ve signed up for a paid subscription or agreed to make any other kind of payment. You should only pay the bill if the other party can provide documentary evidence proving that you genuinely entered into a contract.

Is it OK to complain via e-mail, or do I have to send a registered letter?

It’s OK to contest the claim via e-mail.

What else do I have to bear in mind if I’ve fallen victim to online fraud?

If a company continues to send you unjustified demands for payment, you can report it to the police or the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO). If the other party instigates debt-enforcement proceedings against you, it’s essential to bear in mind that you only have ten days to file a legal objection. Your objection interrupts the proceedings and forces the other party to prove that it has a contractual claim against you.  

I always recommend reading the small print. It can help you avoid getting into a dispute later on.

Isabelle Näf, legal expert at AXA-ARAG

Should I generally avoid downloading free software from the Internet?

No, there’s no need to stop downloading software, but it is important to read the terms and conditions before agreeing to them.

What’s the “button method”?

If you receive a bill even though the website claimed that the product was free, you should check whether the provider observed the button method: did they inform you just before the end of the ordering process that payment was required and prompt you to click on a button to confirm your order?. According to the Price Disclosure Ordinance (SECO), any purported contract is null and void if no correctly labeled button was used.

I usually just agree to the terms and conditions with a click of the mouse. Is that negligent?

Yes, that counts as negligence. You really should read the terms and conditions carefully to avoid any disputes later on.

Can I contest or cancel a contract I’ve entered into?

Any contract you’ve entered into can’t be canceled without a special agreement to that effect. Only door-to-door sales can be canceled within 14 days under Article 40a ff of the Swiss Code of Obligations.

Top tips for online shopping

  • Phishing e-mails: Never provide your details in an e-mail.
  • Trial subscriptions: Beware of trial subscriptions with automatic renewal. Think about the notice period – ideally, you should give notice immediately as of the earliest possible cancellation date.
  • Free offers: Three months free? Read the terms and conditions carefully, and never accept offers from dubious providers.
  • Hidden subscriptions: Beware of ordering products from dubious online shops.

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