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‘I was flabbergasted’: refunds for unused subscriptions may be easier than you think

<span>Citizens Advice estimates unused subscriptions for services such as TV streaming cost consumers £688m in the past year.</span><span>Photograph: Giuliano Benzin/Getty Images</span>
Citizens Advice estimates unused subscriptions for services such as TV streaming cost consumers £688m in the past year.Photograph: Giuliano Benzin/Getty Images

How many subscription services are you signed up to? It may be more than you think.

According to recent research from Citizens Advice, the amount consumers are spending on “accidental subscriptions” has risen sharply: it estimates unused subscriptions cost us £688m in the past year. The charity found that many of those affected said the subscription “auto-renewed” without their knowledge, or they signed up for a free trial but forgot to cancel later.

However, it may be easier than you imagine to get a refund for a service you haven’t used.

These subscriptions cover a vast array of services, from TV and music streaming to newspapers and magazines, and from fitness apps to dating and food delivery services.

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However, many companies tend not to make the refund process obvious. It may be that information on how to request money back is buried in the terms and conditions, or you have to contact the company.

I recently realised, much to my chagrin, that yet another £7.99 had left my account in March after I had let my subscription with Audible, the audiobook and podcast service, run for seven months without using a single credit. Determined not to let it happen again the following month, I set about trying to cancel my subscription. I didn’t feel the website was making it very easy, so I logged on to its customer service chat to ask someone to cancel my subscription for me, which they kindly did.

While there, I chanced my arm. I hadn’t used the subscription in seven months, I explained to the bot or human being – I’m not entirely sure which – on the other end of the chat. Would it be possible to get a refund? Quick as a flash, they agreed, and I was reimbursed to the tune of £47.94, with the cash arriving in my bank account the following day. I was flabbergasted. Apparently, all I had to do was ask. How had I not known it was that simple?

My experience is that when asking politely and having valid reasons, there is generally a way to get a refund

Sylvia Tillman

Sylvia Tillman had a similar experience – and was similarly surprised when she signed up to the Babbel language learning app.

“I’d had the app for a year, hadn’t used it much, and it automatically renewed via my credit card,” she says. She got in touch with the company. “A polite email to their customer service team and the suggestion that they should be able to see that I hadn’t used it for ages sorted it fairly quickly, and I got a refund,” she says, adding that the money – about £70 – was on her next credit card statement.

“My experience is that when asking politely and having valid reasons, there is generally a way to get a refund,” she says.

Babbel told us it always offers refunds 20 days after the initial purchase, “no explanation needed”, and that with auto-renewal, “our customer support team is always happy to look into it”.

Related: How to succeed at the ‘no-spend’ challenge

Some people have to fight a little harder, however. Bex Seeley Harris signed up for a weight loss app but, after not using it, decided to cancel. “I thought I had cancelled in time,” she says. By the time she noticed her subscription had not been cancelled, though, she had already made four out of the six monthly payments.

“When I realised, I contacted the company and my bank to get the payments stopped.” Seeley Harris’s bank explained that it couldn’t stop the payments as this was a subscription she had automatically agreed to by not cancelling in time.

In the end she was refunded and spared the final two payments but Seeley Harris, who runs the My Power of Attorney website, feels frustrated that this was allowed to happen in the first place.

The consumer expert Helen Dewdney says it is always worth asking for a refund on an unused subscription.

“It’s easy to get caught by these traps – even I’ve forgotten to cancel an Amazon Prime free trial. I didn’t use the account for four months. But Amazon does refund this if you haven’t used it,” she says – although she warns that companies are under no obligation to offer refunds for subscriptions that have gone uncancelled.

“For Amazon, just go on the online chat and request it. It’s usually very easy and simple,” says Dewdney, who runs the blog the Complaining Cow.

She adds: “You can try with others. The trick will be to show that you haven’t used the subscription. Be polite and remember, you are appealing to their better nature, so often it will just depend on how much flexibility staff have. Try online chat, ringing and writing. It’s always worth trying an alternative as you’ll get to speak to someone different.”

Dewdney says it is also a good idea to do as Seeley Harris did and contact your bank if the company refuses. “But, again, there is no obligation for the bank to find in your favour.”

This could all be about to change, however. The digital markets, competition and consumers bill, which addresses subscriptions, is now going through parliament. Dewdney fed into the consultation and hopes the bill will offer more protection to consumers. “If the bill goes through, subscription providers will be required to remind consumers before a contract rolls over or auto-renews,” she says. “A cooling-off period of 14 days must be available at the start of the contract and at renewal.”

Meanwhile, from a small business owner’s perspective, offering refunds on subscriptions is a tricky balance between supporting customers going through a cost of living crisis and keeping a business viable.

Jennifer Chesworth, the founder of Be Happy Resources, a subscription-based service that creates mental health resources for children, does offer refunds to clients if they ask but concedes this isn’t prominently signposted on the site. “We do have it mentioned in our terms and conditions that refunds are granted on a person-by-person basis,” she says. “I think people are unaware they can have refunds, possibly from experiences with bigger businesses, or maybe because it’s just a bit of a faff to sort out.”

Chesworth says she is happy to grant refunds for unused services, and has even in the past returned money as a goodwill gesture to people who say they can’t afford it after the money has been taken. “As a small business, it does hit me, but then I also think many subscriptions trick people out of money, and I don’t want that to be my reputation, especially regarding the sector I work in.”

The trick, it seems, to getting a refund from a subscription service is to ask – nicely at first but more persistently if need be. Make sure all cancellations are in writing and, if not cancelled, that you are able to prove you haven’t used the service.

Remember: you are, sadly, not entitled to a refund for not cancelling a subscription but that doesn’t mean companies won’t give you one if you play your cards right.