Sweet deals abound on the internet, and while most consumers are able to separate the wheat from the chaff when shopping online, some offers manage to blend in with the real stuff to such an extent that consumers are misled into voluntarily parting with their payment details and even ticking the box that says they agree to the website's terms and conditions.
A legal grey zone
Subscription traps is a worldwide issue which could affect anyone using the internet. Across Europe, most people today use emails and social media daily, and these are two of the main channels used by fraudsters to advertise their products.
"Subscription traps rely on peoples' good faith. Consumers are accustomed to being able to trust retailers, and tend to only glance at terms and conditions. Subscription traps take advantage of this behaviour," warns Detective Sergeant Juuso Tschokkinen from the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation, International Affairs.
While subscription traps come in many disguises, some are easier to detect than others as fraudsters may operate in a legal grey zone, according to Tschokkinen. An example of this is when a consumer believes that they are making a one-off payment, but the retailer also initiates ongoing, regular payments that are not communicated clearly to the consumer. A retailer operating in the legal grey zone could include details of the recurring payments in small print in the terms and conditions. In principle the information will thus be available, but in practice, it will be presented in a way that is likely to go unnoticed by the customer.
Global rise in subscription traps
25-32% of adult consumers in Sweden, Norway and Finland come across 'too-good-to-be-true' offers on the internet or in the social media on a daily basis, according to a quantitative survey conducted by the Swedish Consumer Agency and the ECC Sweden in 2017. Usually, the offer will be in the shape of a pop-up offering a free or cheap test package of a product such as diet pills, mobile phones etc. or a test period of a service such as dating services. The consumer could also be invited to take part in a competition or answer questions in a survey, and is asked to give their credit card information to take part in the offer (e.g. postage costs). Only 3-5% in that same region have fallen for the gambit over the past three years, though, and actually ordered goods or services by clicking on too-good-to-be-true offers online, which then resulted in in an unwanted subscription to a product or a service.
A large proportion go unreported
The offers to lure victims into subscription traps are constantly being made more attractive, with lower prices and goods of a seemingly higher quality. And while it is clearly a criminal activity, the law enforcement authorities face a number of challenges when solving cases of subscription traps:
"The loss for a single consumer may be relatively low, so a large proportion of fraudulent transactions may not be reported at all. Add to this that the retailers setting the subscription traps could reside in another country as the internet does not respect national boundaries," says Detective Sergeant Juuso Tschokkinen.
Consumers should stay alert
"I would encourage everyone to stop before making a purchase online and consider whether it sounds too good to be true, and view offers, such as an iPhone on sale for €1, with a healthy scepticism," warns Judith Dayan Thrane, Senior Vice President, Fraud & Dispute, Nets.
All consumers would also benefit from paying close attention to their own bank accounts and card statements, Judith Dayan Thrane recommends, to ensure that all transactions are for goods or services that they ordered themselves.
Read more about clickbait fraud and how to combat it.