Bamboozled January 28, 2016: a free weapon to fight predatory auto-renewals

It’s another annoying reality of using credit or debit cards: predatory automatic renewals.

Auto-renewals can come in handy so consumers don’t inadvertently allow an important subscription or service to lapse.

But all too often, businesses use sneaky auto-renewal provisions, and worse, others make sly attempts to charge your card for an auto-renewal without your permission. Then there are those “free trials” consumers forget to cancel, and the company ends up charging monthly fees after the trial period ends.

Either way, unwanted auto-renewals cost consumers money.

There’s one solution worth checking out: a free service that prowls your credit and debit card history, looking specifically for regularly charged subscription costs, or auto-renewals.

It’s called Trim.

Trim was born when two Yale graduates — Thomas Smyth and Daniel Petkevich — tried to help each other find ways to save money.

They swapped credit card statements, hoping fresh eyes would find some savings.

“It turned out that Dan was paying for renter’s insurance from an apartment he moved out of more than a year ago — and I was paying for Hulu even though I intended to cancel it after the ‘free trial period’ they sold me on,” Smyth said. “As we talked with our friends and families, we realized that this was a problem that affected lots of people and was quite easy to fix using technology.”

The duo created two algorithms that would help rid consumers of unwanted auto-renewals. The first finds your subscriptions automatically, and the second routes your request to cancel a subscription to the correct biller, and it makes sure the cancellation happens.

Here’s how it works: Users sign up at AskTrim.com, and the site sends a verification code to your cell phone. Then you’re connected to Trim’s secure system, which is where you enter your credit card and banking information so the service can scan your accounts to search for auto-renewals.

Trim said security is a big deal.

Smyth said like other reputable sites where users input account information, Trim uses a “tokenized read-only access system that ensures that we never see or store your online banking credentials.”

“Your credentials are passed directly to your bank, and your bank sends us back a read-only access token that allows us to analyze your transaction history,” Smyth said. “You or your bank can revoke this token at any time. It’s impossible for us to move funds or make any changes to your account.”

Then, the algorithms go to work.

Trim will scan your bills and look for merchant names that commonly bill with recurring payments. Smyth said this method identifies 98 percent of your subscriptions instantly – even if you subscribed very recently.

Next, the system looks for recurring payments of the same amount to the same merchant in subsequent months. It knows to leave out merchants such as coffee shops where you may buy the same coffee every week but it’s not a subscription.

Then, you’ll receive a list of all your subscriptions, and you can choose which to cancel with a simple text saying “Cancel Company ABC.” If Trim can’t get it cancelled with a simple email, it will take further steps, such as sending certified mail to cancel an unwanted gym membership.

Still, no cost to you.

Trim said its average user cancels one subscription and saves $15 per month — that’s $180 per year. And in total, it says it’s saved its users more than $1 million per year.

That almost sounds too good to be true, so Bamboozled gave it a try.

After entering two credit cards, it took about 30 minutes for a text with results.

Trim found the cards had quite a few recurring charges, including life insurance payments, utility costs and an online game for kids. It even picked up a regular charge for a liquor store and a pharmacy (guess that makes for a consistent shopper).

But all of the charges were valid, and ones that should continue.

We asked Trim what companies were the biggest auto-renew offenders. From its data, it said, the credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — were guilty of having the most cancelled subscriptions.

“Their credit reports cost $10 to $20 a month, and most people only intend to sign up for a one-month ‘free trial,'” Smyth said.

Another big question you must be having: How can the service be free? What do these guys get out of it?

“We are planning to offer a premium service in the future that provides more holistic financial planning/coaching,” Smyth said. “The current subscription-finding and canceling software costs almost nothing for us to operate, so we’ll keep this feature free forever.”

That would be nice, indeed, especially because getting legislation to protect New Jerseyans from auto-renewals is moving like molasses.

We reported last year that New Jersey is lacking meaningful legislation to protect consumers from unwanted auto-renewals.

California and Oregon offer strong laws on the issue. They require companies to give easy-to-find disclosures of any auto-renew provision and they must get a consumer’s permission before renewing a service. If the company doesn’t get consent and charges a consumer anyway, the service is considered an “unconditional gift” to the consumer.

In our state, during the 2010-2011 legislative session, a bill that would prohibit auto-renewals was introduced by Assemblymen Daniel Benson and Paul Moriarty. While it passed in the Assembly, no one from the Senate sponsored its own version.

This happened again in the 2012-2013 session.

For the 2014-2015 session, the bill was reintroduced into the Assembly, and it passed, but again, no senator was on board.

Benson re-introduced the bill again on Wednesday in the Assembly.

“I refer to it as the `Zombie Contract Bill’ because but these charges are like zombies and they just keep popping up,” Benson said. “We need to make sure consumers are in control of what they’re spending and have an easy way to end these contracts when they want to.”

For the bill to make headway, someone needs to sponsor a version in the Senate.

If you think your legislator — specifically your senator — should sponsor the bill in the Senate, contact your senator here.

Come on, Senators. This bill is a win for every consumer. Won’t someone step up to help?

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.

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