Mastercard Backtracks On Cancelling Sneaky Subscriptions

By Holly Brockwell on at

For a minute, it looked like Big Finance had actually done something selfless to help the little guy. We were all cautiously optimistic yesterday when Mastercard announced it would be stopping anyone who wanted to accept its cards (which is everyone) from sneakily subscribing you after a free trial.

Originally, they said:

The rule change will require merchants to gain cardholder approval at the conclusion of the trial before they start billing. To help cardholders with that decision, merchants will be required to send the cardholder – either by email or text – the transaction amount, payment date, merchant name along with explicit instructions on how to cancel a trial.

We all wondered what they were getting out of it, and concluded that it must be a big timesuck for Mastercard dealing with people trying to cancel charges they weren't OK with, and therefore it was a money-saving measure. Which is fine.

Except that now it turns out Mastercard is actually only applying the rules to physical products, which knocks out about 90% of the sneaky free trials we've ever been caught by.

Despite the information we based our post on coming directly from the Mastercard blog, it was wrong, and said blog has now been updated to clarify that it's only for real, physical things that arrive in the post. Subscription boxes and suchlike.

Here's the still-not-particularly-clear update:

*This blog was updated on January 17, 2019 to clarify that the rule change is applicable to physical products such as skincare, healthcare items etc.

That should say "only applicable."

In any case, you'd think the company would see the positive reaction to its original post and decide to bring in the rules for digital subscriptions too (think newspaper paywalls, streaming memberships, software trials...), but so far, that hasn't happened.

Mastercard spokesperson Chaiti Sen told The Verge that they'd chosen physical products because that's where most of the issues arise, which is surprising, but then our office is rather skewed towards geeky types who want to use Photoshop free for a week rather than people who subscribe to vitamins.

“There’s a lot of fuzziness in health care products, skin care products, vitamins... those physical products are where we’re seeing the most complaints."

We still hold out hope that either Mastercard will realise their error and go back to the original deal, or Visa will swoop in and enact it just to one-up them. But for now, we will revert to our default state for 2019: unsurprised disappointment.