4 March 2017
Is the government about to stamp out free trials?
Today's front page on the Telegraph reveals that sweeping new consumer rights reforms are set to be announced in next week's Budget. They include further steps to clampdown on lengthy and complex small print - something that we've been campaigning for at Fairer Finance since we launched three years ago.
But the real shock in this package of reforms is a promise to crack down on free or discounted trials - which later convert into expensive subscriptions.
This could spell chaos for hundreds of businesses who have built their whole model on the idea of baiting in customers for low or no cost, only to move them onto expensive packages a few weeks later.
End of bait and switch
Newspapers and magazines are an obvious group who could find themselves clobbered here. Even Britain's largest consumer group Which? relies on exactly this kind of model - churning over millions of customers every year, who sign up for £1 and quickly find themselves paying up to 20 times that.
We've all fallen foul of these kind of offers - drawn in by a cheap deal, and then forgetting to cancel before it gets expensive.
But is this an area where the government really needs to legislate?
It's certainly a very negative business model - as it profits from consumers' apathy, and the fact that most of us lead increasingly busy and complex lives.
But few of us could say that we feel the wool is being pulled over our eyes when we sign up to these kind of deals. I've been meaning to cancel my Now TV subscription for weeks. I've not got round to it yet - and have spent a few tens of pounds on something that I've barely used. But I know that's my fault - and that my low cost first month was a loss leading price to get me in the door.
Devil in the detail as usual
There's very little detail in today's announcement - and I suspect that the detail will be a little less radical than the initial rhetoric suggests. Certainly, a clamp down on businesses that sign customers up to subscriptions without their knowledge is needed.
And additional powers for the CMA to enforce against companies with complex, lengthy terms and conditions is also good news.
While we're at it - I'd be in support of legislating for a maximum reading age for all consumer facing documents. Some states in the US have gone that far - and it's about time that companies started writing in a language that all their customers can understand, rather than writing complex contracts that run to many thousands of words.
One final thought. This is all something of a bolt from the blue. It seems to be coming out of the Department of Business - who have been remarkably quiet on consumer rights since the last election. Let's hope this is the start of a more active consumer agenda from the government.