Friday, October 19, 2007

A Pox on Your Indefinite Debits for Annual Product Renewals

I just filed the following suggestion at the Symantec feedback site:

This year, when my [old product] renewal came up, I strongly considered upgrading to your 2008 product - until I read the fine print in the upgrade document that required an automatic annual debit to my credit card account (rather than giving me the choice on an annual basis whether or not to renew).

Faced with this "choice," I decided to stick with the old product (combined with the anti-spyware freeware I currently use) and its less onerous contractual conditions.

Our family has already been harmed by identity theft once this year, and I would rather not keep my credit card information in company servers if not needed. If Symantec insists on using contractual features that constitute a threat to my identity, I will gladly take my future business elsewhere.

I'm not the only one who is upset about this practice:

IT consultant and Windows Secrets subscriber Bruce Weiskopf received a routine notice that his Norton Internet Security product subscription was about to expire. Then, when he began examining some online forms, he became upset. There, in the fine print, he noticed a clause saying he was already signed up for automatic subscription renewal.

"It's barely noticeable, and, in any event, you aren't given the opportunity to decline at this point," he told Windows Secrets. All he could see was a link for more information. So, he went to the Symantec Web site to find out more.

According to Bruce, what ensued was an onerous process of hoop-jumping before he was finally able to tell the company not to renew his subscription and charge his credit card automatically each year.

"It's really, really an unconscionable scam," Bruce adds. "I'm sure there are many consumers who don't pay attention to their credit card statements, enabling Symantec to make quite a profit at about $50 a pop!"

And my threat to take my business elsewhere may not have done much good:

Microsoft Windows Live OneCare, Symantec, McAfee, and ZoneAlarm all enroll customers into the companies' automatic subscription-renewal programs with the purchase of a subscription-based product. In most cases, customers aren't given a choice to opt out, and only find out about the annual renewals when they receive an e-mail notice or see a charge on their credit card.

For some users, automatic renewal is a boon, since it saves the annual chore of manually renewing subscriptions to new virus definitions. Others view the policy with suspicion, especially since these policies are often not made clear at the outset. Moreover, the amount charged for the renewal each year can change, depending on the going rate for the subscription at the time of the renewal.

Of the four products, ZoneAlarm seems to have the most customer-friendly policy:

Unlike the other three companies I tested, the order form for ZoneAlarm provides a check box where you enter your credit-card information that reads "Automatically renew my subscription upon expiration." The box is checked by default, however, so if you miss it, you'll be signed up for automatic charges until you cancel. And the confirmation e-mail you receive won't clue you in to this fact.

And yes, this is the most friendly policy. Compare the other three policies here.

And then there's the story of Charly, who uninstalled Norton AntiVirus due to LiveUpdate issues. Guess what Charly found out?

I have found out that they automatically renew peoples' subscriptions. I have contacted them saying they DO NOT have my permission to take money from my bank account. But they have not replied to me.

And for the record, Trend Micro also allows opt out of the automatic renewal service. Something to remember next time around.

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