don't be burned by auto-renewing web services


Sept 15, 2007: I don't know about you, but I'm getting a wee bit annoyed by Web based service providers who try to stick it to me.  In this case my gripe is The Kim Komando Show.

The Kim Komando Show, at http://www.komando.com

The Kim Komando show is the largest syndicated radio talk show and is about all things digital and IT (short for Information Technology).  I commend her expertise and show content, and I highly recommend giving her show a listen.  If you try to listen to her show on KRLD Dallas, you'll often find it's nowhere to be found.  It's being rubbed out almost every week (on Sundays) by Rangers baseball.  So I signed up for a six month service to download her show feeds.

The first four weeks were fine, I was able to download her archived show content.  Kim calls herself the "digital goddess" and I found most of her information is accurate, and the advice she gives is sound and useful, though many times it is generalized.  In a business like this (I was in radio broadcasting for 10 years) you have to be careful not to get too specific on a problem because to other listeners it becomes uninteresting.  She makes many good points, for example her disdain with Norton Antivirus and Norton Internet Security takes over your computer just a bit too much - I agree with that.  Oh and Kim, let's cool it with some of the sound effects - that gets a bit tiring.  And she's hip with the latest digital news and trends.

She sides with the consumer quite a bit, which is a good thing, pointing out many of the traps people get into in dealing with products and services, for both personal and business use.  But that's where the helpful advice ends.  When PCNS decided to become a Komando member is where the problems began.

Like many web services, Komando is auto-renewing.  This means if you've signed up for six months, you're basically signed up forever, unless you cancel by going to the website.  It doesn't sound like a big deal, but stay with me on this.

From the Kim's Club (http://komando.com/kimsclub/) Signup Page:

"Once you join Kim's Club, your subscription will be extended automatically on a monthly or yearly basis.   Your credit card will be charged for each extension.  However, you may cancel your subscription at any time. To do so, log in to Kim's Club and select My Account.  Click the Cancel Subscription link."

I was clearly aware of this auto-renewing.  Many Web based services are auto-renewing.  However, many web sites enable you to disable auto renewing.  When you sign up for Web Hosting on Network Solutions, you can uncheck the option to automatically renew.  Zone Labs Antivirus allows you opt out of auto renewing when you purchase a product, even the much disdained Norton Antivirus will allow you to opt out of Auto renewals of subscriptions (though you have to read the fine print and watch carefully for it).

So in the light of lacking opting out of auto-renew, Citibank Virtual Credit Cards to the rescue!   When you sign up for a six month plan Komando charges you $19.50 up front, and the consumer benefits with six months of service.  I signed up for the service for six months and used my Citibank Virtual Credit Card number, giving the card a 2 month (8 week) expiration date.  If you are charged up front, why do you need to extend the expiration date unnecessarily?  I enjoyed four weeks of uninterrupted service.  Then the fifth week hit.

On the 5th week I was unable to sign in, their website stating my membership expired.  I emailed customer service, and a few days later was informed my credit card number was declined, despite the fact it was well within the expiration period.  After several attempts at creating new accounts with new virtual card numbers I got the same results.  The Customer Service explanation (from Tracy at the Komando show) was that the subscription is auto renewing and they check your card for future authorizations.  Citibank virtual cards, by default, are setup to be virtually "swiped" one time.  You can also set an expiration date of the card, and a preset spending limit.  It's unclear what Komando was stuck on, since the Merchant Service can decline card numbers for a number of reasons.  Perhaps it was due in part to it's "repeatability" to be charged, perhaps the expiration date doesn't extend into a pre-determined date.

Theories, Findings, and Conclusions

#1 Do as I say, not as I do

Throughout this process my Virtual Card sevice said charges from Komando.com were pending, but my card was never charged.  So if I was never charged why I am over reacting?  My beef is philosophical.  If PCNS offered a service, say a backup service, I would never auto renew a customer, or attempt to autorenew a customer 4 weeks into a 6 month subscription.   I would run it like a non-autorenewing magazine subscription - sign up for six month or 1 year service, and the customer can cancel anytime.  A month to month charge of $3.95 is too trivial of an amount and I wouldn't do recurring monthly subscription fees.  People spending $500 to $2000 for a computer can afford a $20 6 month subscription.  Having the customer renew their subscription on their own means (a) I would never need to store a customer's credit card number, (b) the customer renewing (or not renewing) tells me if I have either earned their continued business, or if I need to make an adjustment to make the service I provide better.  Kim Komando often times exposes the shady ways web companies are doing business.  The excuse that "other companies" autorenew and that this is a common business practice is not a reason to follow the crowd.  As a commentator of technology and services, as well as being the crusader for the digitally connectected consumer, Komando needs to set higher standards.

#2 Web site design flaw?

Web checkout does not check for expiration dates into the future beyond the expiration term of the subscription, nor does it check for multiple authorizations.  It's not even stated in their Terms and Conditions.  This exposes the consumer to more risk because the Komando show retains and stores your credit card number.  There are two types of websites - those who haven't been hacked, and those who will be hacked.  Hackers love the challenge of hacking high profile websites based on computers, security, and technology, as hackers think it goes to a test of character and expertise.    How many stories do we hear of internal employees taking home laptops computers with a database of personal customer information, only to get the laptop stolen?  What about a break-in, theft of equipment or loss of a backup tape?  There could be many factors out of Komando's internal controls - third party companies providing technologies and services, in which Komando.com retains no security controls or policies.  Generally speaking you never want to use your real credit card numbers anywhere on the web, and you want to use the minimum credit limits and expiration dates of virtual credit card numbers in case a data breech does occur.

#2 Some may consider this a problem with their business model.

I believe firmly in a business to earn, and re-earn your business.  A company that auto-renews your service, while many people find a convenience, is often abused and gets a bad wrap.  Just read "Just Cancel the @#%$* Account", by PC World Magazine.  As consumers, we have low confidence in canceling a service that will actually stop charging us.   This causes us headaches and wastes our time fighting credit card companies disputing the charge(s).

With this issue there's a simple solution - Kim, if you're reading, don't auto renew, or give the consumer a choice - the option not to auto renew, on the web.  You won't have the huge liability of storing credit card numbers, and it places the power back to the customer to decide if they want to renew, not just Komando.com unilaterally renewing us.  Also, how about payment alternatives such as Paypal funds transfers?

Happy Ending?

That depends on the Komando website, and if they offer one time subscriptions.  I'll keep everyone apprised, and I'll post Komando.com's response.  And, by the way, if you're reading between the lines, keep it to yourself, and don't try it.  PCNS does NOT endorse theft of service, even though the website design (or lack thereof) allows you to do so.  By the time you read this it may be patched.

Workarounds

Try to catch the show on the air, record and timeshift it if you want.   KLBJ 590 Austin streams the Kim Komando show on Saturdays between 12n and 3p Central Time.  Also, KDWN Las Vegas airs Kim Komando between 9a to 12n Central Time.  
Get a friend or family member to sign you up and "gift" you the Service, or email atyourservice at komando.com and request a gift subscription.  Just don't send your credit card information over the email!  If the consumer does enough of these, perhaps Komando.com will be convinced to have a:

[x] Do NOT automatically renew my subscription AND shred my CC information when the transaction is complete.

on her web page, and Kim Komando can once again live up to her ethics and integrity she frequently preaches.