Beware of “free trial” app traps! Know your rights if charged.

Smartphone Apps and the Hidden Dangers of “Free Trials”

Smartphones have become indispensable tools in our daily lives, with a myriad of apps being a central component of their functionality. However, some businesses, driven by profit motives, have begun using sneaky tactics like “7-day free trials” or “Enjoy 7 days for just $0.10” to lure users. These offers often hide traps; for instance, tapping “free trial” might automatically sign you up for a monthly or annual subscription, and what appears as a low-cost trial might unexpectedly convert into a high-cost plan after the period ends.

The Traps of Smartphone Application Trials

Recently, Ms. Zhang from Beijing encountered such an issue with an app named “MaiMai.” She was drawn to an advertisement promising a seven-day trial membership for just $0.10. To her surprise, after the trial period, without her knowledge, the app charged her a $40 membership fee.

Complainant Ms. Zhang: “There was a trial membership offer for $0.10 for seven days. After the trial ended, I didn’t even open the app, but they had automatically charged my account without any notification. It was only when I checked my statements that I noticed this charge.”

Prompted by Ms. Zhang’s experience, journalists explored the app and confirmed that the misleading trial advertisement was still there.

They noted that key details about the trial period and automatic renewal were written in very small, obscure print, making it easy to overlook the automatic renewal terms and conditions.

Mr. Li, Another Complainant: “I tried the app for a small fee, thinking it was just $1 or so for a seven-day trial. I uninstalled the app afterwards and stopped paying attention. Later, I received a notification of a charge, and upon checking, realized it was from this app.”

Mr. Li found that, after the trial, the app had automatically charged him $6 for membership without any prior notification, which he found unacceptable.

Different Types of “Free” Trial Traps

Upon investigating, journalists identified three main deceptive practices in app trials:

  1. Misleading Trials: Consumers are charged immediately after agreeing to a “free” or “low-cost” trial, where the trial is merely a few days of a longer subscription.
  2. Stealth Subscriptions: Charges are applied before the end of a trial period without any notification, leading to automatic subscription renewals.
  3. Bundled Renewals: After a trial, renewals occur automatically without any alert given to the consumer.

Complaints Focus Largely on Utility Apps

According to a third-party complaints platform, the largest number of complaints in a single year related to free and low-cost trials reached over 9,000 cases.

Manager of the Complaints Platform, Mr. Sun Xiaoming: “In 2020, we received the highest annual number of complaints, totaling over 9,500, related to free and low-cost trials. In one instance, a single month saw over 1,500 complaints due to a promotional event by one app.”

As consumers become aware of these deceptive practices, they often struggle to request refunds, with many apps not providing easy access to customer service, offering only email or feedback options.

How Can Consumers Protect Their Rights?

The deceptive practices often violate several consumer rights, including the right to be informed and the right to choose freely. Automatic renewals often involve unclear consent and notification issues.

According to Professor Ma Yong, Southwest University of Political Science and Law: “These practices infringe upon the consumer’s right to be informed and to make an informed choice, and eventually, their right to fair trade.”

Prof. Yang Shangdong, Executive Director of the Public Law Research Center: “Under current laws, consumers have several options: they can attempt to resolve issues with the operator, seek mediation through consumer associations, file complaints with administrative authorities, request arbitration, or take legal action.”

Recently, governing bodies have introduced stricter regulations to address the issue of automatic renewals. Effective from July 1, 2024, the new rules will require businesses to clearly disclose terms of service before and ahead of automatic renewals and extensions, ensuring that consumers are adequately informed.

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