Magazines have long pulled the ignoble trick of getting their subscribers to sign on for multiple years, suggesting with repeated correspondence and feverish pitches that subscriptions are in jeopardy when there’s still plenty of time to renew. And if you’re a person (like me), who subscribes to about six billion periodicals, then you send in your check on impulse, only to find that you’ve unexpectedly signed on for another two and a half years.
(I won’t name names, but I’ll just say that certain magazine empires are even more egregious than this. When the magazine folds after a handful of issues, they don’t even bother to refund a partial amount to their subscribers unless the subscriber calls them. But most of them forget and, of course, take their sweet time in sending out the checks.)
But Wired‘s treatment of its subscribers takes the cake. Apparently, Wired assumes that if a subscriber doesn’t renew his subscription, then the magazine automatically assumes that the subcriber wants to renew. If there is no written notice provided by the subscriber, they sic the North Shore Agency, a major debt-collection firm, upon the reluctant renewer.
One San Francisco resident, Bob McMillan, received a variety of letters reading “Request for Payment” and “Account Status: Delinquent.” (A sample letter can be found here.)
There is no doubt in my mind that Boing Boing will not mention any of this. After all, all of its authors contribute regularly to Wired. This seems hypocritical to me, considering how EFF-friendly and pro-individual they present themselves to be.
Further, Wired isn’t the only one doing this. One subscriber reports that PC Magazine has been nebulous about the number of times the magazine is published and automatically renewed his subscription without his permission. Another blogger experienced a Kafkaesque moment when he was hassled on the phone by Time. (See the May 28, 2005 entry.) (And interestingly enough, the Time Inc. Magazine Group was the subject of a multi-state investigation into their subscription practices two years ago.)
Apparently, Wired is able to do this through direct-mail solicitations that contain a clause in fine print — what is sometimes referred to as advanced consent marketing. But are these clauses clear and conspicuous enough to the magazine subscriber. Even the MPA notes that magazine subsciptions have guidelines, subject to Federal Trade Commission regulations:
The customer must take an action to demonstrate affirmative consent, such as checking a box, affixing a stamp, pushing a number on a telephone keypad, pushing a key on a computer keyboard, clicking a mouse, giving an oral response, or returning an order form. The customer should have all the material terms of the sale, disclosed in a clear and conspicuous manner, prior to taking the action demonstrating affirmative consent.
The FTC suggests that anyone who has been misled into automatic renewal to contact their state Attorney General or local consumer protection office.
But if automatic renewal has become such a major problem, then perhaps government legislation that upholds the clear and conspicuous consent of a consumer and that enacts substantial fines and punitive damages upon the magazines who mislead their readers is a better answer.