Subscription traps and uncancellable contracts: how to escape scams and surplus expenses

7 min read
September 06, 2023

Staying on top of life’s expenses can be tricky at the best of times. Keeping track of your subscriptions and your contract based services can be particularly difficult. 

Maybe you signed up for a free trial on an entertainment or health app and then forgot to cancel it? Or you’ve noticed your phone bill going up with no explanation, or found mysterious charges on your bank statement each month. 

In the digital age, it is so very easy to subscribe to products you don’t want with just one click. It may not even be obvious that you’ve subscribed to something until you check your bank account.

Recently there has been an explosion of online scams and dodgy businesses that use less-than-transparent practices to make consumers accidentally sign up to their services, and then make it incredibly hard, or seemingly impossible, to cancel. 

As well as these unwanted subscriptions or subscription traps, many of us enter into contracts with service providers without being fully aware of how costs may increase or our financial circumstances may change. 

Taking advantage of a seemingly ‘fantastic’ offer can make us blind to questionable companies or products and may end up costing hundreds or even thousands of pounds. There is also significant stress that comes from not being able to cancel a subscription or contract or prevent a company from taking monthly payments from your account.

Feeling confident cancelling a contract or subscription, and understanding your right to do so, is essential for any consumer today. In this article, we’ll offer some tips and advice on keeping clear of subscription traps and how to cancel unwanted contracts and subscriptions. 

Learn to spot and avoid subscription traps

Subscription traps lock people into repeat payments for products and services – whether it’s slimming pills, anti-ageing face creams, or the latest gadgets. 

To get people to sign up and provide their banking details they often offer a free or low-cost trial, hide key terms and conditions, or disguise the sign-up process as something else. For example, a site may request bank card details as proof of identity or age and then retain the details to take a monthly payment from your account. 

The first tip for avoiding a subscription trap is always do some prior research first. Never provide your bank details to a completely unfamiliar company or site. 

If you are keen on a free or low-cost offer make sure you read the terms & conditions carefully before entering into any agreement or making a purchase. It may take a long time to go through the small print, but at least you’ll be certain that you’re not being scammed. 

We also advise always keeping a copy of any advertisement of the offer and original agreement. If you end up needing to complain you’ll have a record of what the company promised. 

If you are caught in a subscription trap contact your local Trading Standards or report the scam to Action Fraud by calling 0300 123 20 40 or via

Try not to forget about free trials 

Freebies can be hard to resist. Most companies who offer free trials of their products do so hoping that you’ll enjoy their service and want to stay signed up. However, they also know that even if you don’t need or make the most of your subscription, you may forget to cancel and end up paying anyway. 

There are also many dodgy businesses that rely on our weakness for freebies and good deals to lure consumers into paying for something they don’t even need or a substandard product. 

There is no reason to feel silly for forgetting to cancel a subscription after the free trial has passed – it can be really hard to keep on top. And you absolutely have the right to opt out at any time. So as soon as you have spotted the subscription charge you should try to cancel immediately.

If you are signing up for a free trial, remember to check the terms and conditions before you start – make sure you establish when the free trial period ends and avoid getting locked into a contract you don’t want. 

You can then set a calendar reminder for yourself to ensure you cancel before the free period ends. If calendar alarms don’t do it for you, you can also cancel the subscription as soon as you’ve joined – you’ll be able to enjoy all the perks until the end of the date without worrying about cancelling it later on!

Check your subscriptions and contract spending regularly 

The reality is that it can be hard to even know what you have subscribed to. Getting a handle on your monthly bills is key for getting rid of any sneaky subscriptions that you are paying for without realising. 

We know that sitting down and going through your bills can feel daunting, especially in times of financial hardship. But avoiding your bills means that you may not learn about products or services you are paying for but not using until many months down the line. 

Keeping an eye on your monthly spending can be hard if you’re using different credit cards or bank accounts. Establishing a routine of sitting down once a month and going through all your bills and payments, or using a budgeting app that can aggregate spending across multiple accounts, will ultimately take the pressure off and make you feel more in control.  

Subscriptions can sometimes be hard to identify because they are disguised to look like normal transactions. So when going through your expenses, keep your eyes out for mystery debits. Remember to pay special attention to your phone bill as this is where some firms will debit you and can be easily overlooked. 

If you need some extra help keeping track of your bills, check out Billing Better, a service that sets up and organises all household bills into one simple monthly payment.

Don’t take shenanigans from dodgy businesses  

Cancelling a subscription or contract shouldn’t be hard work. Unfortunately, though, there are many firms that make it so. 

All kinds of dishonest practices can be used to obstruct you from cancelling a contract or subscription – from disguising a monthly charge so you can’t detect it, to limiting modes of contacting the company.

It can feel very distressing to be paying for something you don’t need with money you don’t have. If you’ve made every effort to contact the company to cancel the agreement and have not had a reply, then call your bank or card provider. If you tell them that you did not authorise a transaction, or your ability to opt out has been removed, they will be able to help you stop the payments. 

This will be helpful in immediately stopping any payments you can’t afford. But this is not the same as cancelling your contract. If you have cancelled the direct debit, you may still need to follow up with the company directly to ensure that you have cancelled the contract. 

Remember that you only have full protection and recourse to regulatory bodies if a company is UK-based. Should you need to cancel an agreement it will be much easier with a UK-based company – so again, make sure you do your research on accompany before signing up for anything. Many companies trading in the UK do not have a physical presence here and can be elusive when it comes to getting a refund. 

Get your own back

You may be surprised to know that if you don’t authorise a company to debit your account, they are legally obliged to give you your money back. Unless they can prove that they had permission, any charges should be refunded. 

So if you are in the unfortunate position of being exploited, obstructed or caught in a subscription trap, you can get your own back. Speak to your bank and get their help asking the company to provide evidence that you gave permission to be debited – if they can’t, you may be able to obtain a full refund. 

Remember, you’ll need a copy of the advertisement or original agreement in order to get a reimbursement for mis-selling or lack of authorisation. 

Need some extra help?

Our  free service makes it easier for you to raise a complaint about dodgy business tactics, unfair charges, or to get in contact with companies to cancel your subscription. So if you want to make a complaint about a subscription, or need to resolve an issue with a company, use we’re here to help. 

If you’ve been targeted by an online scam or experienced cybercrime, you can contact the charity Victim Support  for free and confidential support and information.


If you have any thoughts on this topic, or any other consumer issues you would like us to cover, feel free to get in touch with us at .

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