- Written by Arthur Vidro Arthur Vidro
“Automatic renewal” is when a publication extends your subscription without first asking you and then demands payment.
I first experienced such a renewal back in the 1990s. I thought it was bold of the magazine to say they had taken it upon themselves to renew my subscription, and I would now pay the bill.
Instead, despite its being a quality publication, I canceled.
I might have renewed if they had asked politely. But they didn’t.
Automatic renewals may help some folks who aren’t on top of their paperwork. But let’s face it: Publishers came up with this device to benefit themselves, not to benefit readers. A publisher playing this game of renewing your subscription on your behalf spends less money mailing out reminders and offers.
Plus, by skipping the step of asking the customer, its renewal rate goes way up. Automatic renewal keeps the periodical’s circulation numbers as high as possible, and it’s those numbers — which are subject to audit — that determine rates for advertising, which is the biggest source of revenue for most magazines and newspapers.
Automatic renewals can cause confusion. Many people, especially the elderly, receive these renewals and conclude — despite having no memory of having done so — they must have renewed. And so they pay the requested fee. Even if they no longer want to subscribe.
It’s also confusing for the estates of people who have passed away when these bills continue to pour in, demanding money for subscriptions that live on — sometimes for years — after the reader has died.
Even more egregious is when the automatic renewal occurs via deduction from a bank account, without any action needed by the so-called subscriber. A dead person’s joint account keeps renewing automatically, much to the glee of publishers.
A neighbor named Lila showed me a letter she received from a women’s lifestyle magazine. Lila had purposely let her subscription lapse, or so she thought. But this letter confused her.
It began by thanking her for “choosing to be part of our Continuous Service Program. As we recently notified you, your renewal … has been processed. By renewing your subscription, you have guaranteed yourself considerable savings off the newsstand price, hassle-free service, and uninterrupted delivery. You won’t miss a single issue!”
One sentence was underlined, for emphasis: “Payment is now due.”
It concluded, “Please enclose your check with the invoice below and return it in the pre-addressed envelope.” The detachable portion, to be returned with a check, contained the word INVOICE in capital letters. It was the largest word on the document. It made Lila think she owed money to the publisher.
“Did you renew your subscription?” I asked.
“Not that I know of,” she answered.
“Do you want to renew it?”
“No. I want it to end. But this invoice says I renewed. So I’ll have to pay. Otherwise, it might hurt my credit rating.”
“Have you phoned the publisher?”
“I don’t know how. There’s no phone number on the letter. I looked in the magazine, but there’s no number there either.”
It was true. Over the decades, many magazine publishers, wishing to avoid having to pay folks to answer the phone, have stopped publishing their phone numbers. Instead there’s an instruction to go to a website, so the company can garner as much information as possible about you for marketing and resale purposes.
“Let me help,” I offered.
I made a photocopy of the letter from the magazine, stuck it in a typewriter, and I typed — and Lila signed — the following:
Why do you think I owe you money?
I NEVER agreed to be part of a “continuous service program” with you or with any other magazine. I have NEVER taken part in any such program.
My instinct was to telephone you and discuss the misunderstanding. However, you have consciously decided to omit your telephone number from your communications.
Perhaps if you had invited me to renew, I would have considered it; but your telling me that I already made a commitment to renew smacks of a lack of ethics and, quite frankly, rubs my fur the wrong way.
We mailed the letter. Don’t know if it was the letter or not, but soon enough the magazine stopped hounding Lila for money.
If you receive a bill for a subscription that you wanted to let lapse, but the publisher insists otherwise, what should you do?
If the bill contains a phone number for customer service, call and explain. If it doesn’t contain a phone number, then they don’t merit an explanation. Just throw the bill away.
And if magazines continue to arrive, that’s the publisher’s problem, not yours.
Arthur Vidro worked for a decade in the stock industry. Before and after, he wrote newspaper articles and edited a few books. He has served as treasurer of theater and library organizations. He’s been cautious with money ever since a dollar was worth a dollar.