Buyer, beware

I admit it: I do a lot of Internet-related transactions.  I purchase and sell things on eBay; I buy products from Web-based merchants; I purchase subscriptions for online services.  And I usually don’t have too much trouble.

But last week was different.  In the space of two days, I was hit with three unexpected transactions totalling almost $150.  I was fortunate that one of them — an $80 charge for annual anti-virus and firewall subscription renewal — could be canceled and a full refund applied.  But the others, which were site subscriptions, refused to issue even a partial credit despite that we were only a day or two into the billing period.

Here’s the problem, as I see it.  There are a lot of Web merchants that promise instant gratification — just put in your credit-card number and off you go.  This is not inherently problematic.  However, a distressingly large number of companies seem designed to screw the consumer through fine print.  Unless you read the end-user license agreement line-by-line, for example, you might not know the extent of rights you’re surrendering.  Like the right to cancel with the same simplicity with which you enrolled.

It is conceded that consumers have a duty to be aware and informed; I don’t generally believe that people are morons who need to be shielded from their own stupidity.  But there is a fine line between “prudence” and “paranoia,” and it seems that people increasingly must act like paranoiacs to achieve the protections usually afforded by simple prudence.

I believe it is unethical for merchants that offer instant-on capability to refuse to provide instant-off capability as well.  If I can subscribe in 10 seconds, I should’t be required to call a long-distance number to hear a sales pitch before I can have an account canceled or an automatic billing cycle terminated.  And if I forget to call, or if I call the day charges hit, I shouldn’t be liable for a full monthly service charge, either — merchants are not entitled to get something for nothing any more than consumers are.

Likewise, I should have the right to directly select whether a service will automatically rebill my credit card without having to comb through the EULA or terms-of-service agreement — especially when the hit is not insignificant and occurs months or even a year after the original transaction.

And don’t get me started on “bundled” billing.

I suspect consumers are taking it in the shorts through this kind of dishonest business practice.  How many Web-savvy customers get slapped with occasional charges for services they forgot to cancel?  How many people have thrown their telephone against the wall because some arrogant “customer service” representative quoted from a 10-page TOS agreement when explaining why he won’t grant a refund?

As a matter of preference, I do not like governmental intervention into the marketplace.  But this may be a situation where my ox has been sufficiently gored that I’m increasingly willing to make an exception so that predatory online merchants can be brought under control.

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