There’s an old joke in tech circles that the only reason that AOL was still profitable at the end was that the company was still receiving auto-payments from bank accounts belong to the deceased and the mentally infirm.
I can’t say if there’s any truth to that joke, but I can say that I know at least one company that has adopted the practice as one of their core business practices.
That company is Scribd.
As you may know, Scribd charges $8.99 per month for a limited Netflix-style ebook subscription service. It’s not a bad deal so long as you don’t mind that they will cut you off if you read too much.
What’s less well-known is that Scribd has built its revenue stream on tricking former subscribers into continuing to pay for a subscription that they thought they had canceled. Scribd does this via a cancellation process that uses what is known in the design industry as “dark patterns”, which is really just a term for designing an interface for tricking customers into doing things they did not intend. (Bait-and-switch marketing is another example.)
One of Scribd’s victims contacted me this morning to complain about Scribd’s trickery.
I cancelled I think back in September and just realized I have been being charged for the past 4 months. I know for a fact it said my account was cancelled when I did it originally, but when I logged in today of course it shows everything as active.
I assume maybe there was a glitch because maybe I cancelled in the app itself on my ipad and not on their website. I re-cancelled today and it is crazy how they hide that confirm cancellation link way down the bottom of the page, even though it says at the top you have cancelled. I also noticed it’s all over their terms of service that they won’t give refunds for anything passed 30 days. This is definitely by design.
The thing is, folks, this didn’t just happen to one person. It is exactly the same experience I had four years ago, and this experience is shared by at least a dozen people who commented on that post from 2015.
When I first wrote about this practice, I blamed myself for falling for it, but now that I see that Scribd has been doing the exact same thing for over four years now, and now that I have reports from Scribd’s other victims, I have to agree that this is intentional.
Scribd has built its business on stealing from former customers. This is one of their core practices, and it casts a dark cloud over everything the company has claimed to accomplish. While Scribd claims to have a million subscribers, we don’t actually know what percentage are voluntarily giving Scribd their money, and what percentage are being robbed month after month.
What’s the over-under, do you think?