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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Beware the small print

30 July 2019

Spam, it's a daily fact of life for anyone on the internet.

Whether it's unsolicited email pitching man-part enhancing products or an attempt at phishing, this stuff is constantly trying to separate you from your money in some way or another.

I try to keep an eye on trends in the spam area and recently I've seen a new scammy strategy that you can be sure is raking in a small fortune for those behind it.

Most email scams involve an outright lie such as "this cream will make your man-parts bigger" or "your account is suspended, click on the link below to log in and resolve this problem". The latest twist however, includes the truth... but it's hidden deep in the fine print. This small detail means that those who become victims may not have any comeback through their credit-card companies once they discover that they've been "robbed".

And here's how it works

Like all such scams, it starts with the arrival of an unsolicited email.

That email informs the recipient that they have won some wonderful prize. These emails are very carefully customised to the recipient, including their name and sometimes offering prizes that are country-specific. The prizes range from expensive smartphones through to $50 supermarket vouchers (New World or Countdown).

If you scan the email quickly you'll see that all you have to do in order to claim your prize is click on a link.

What most people won't see is the footnote that is right down at the bottom of the email, separated from the rest of the body by a *lot* of whitespace. The footnote clearly refers to a "membership" that will be automatically renewed at regular intervals and which costs around NZ$75.

How many people never scroll to the very bottom of an email message after reading what appears to be the end of that message and seeing only whitespace below? Quite a few I would suggest.

Here is one of the emails I've received of late

Anyway, clicking on one of these emails which offered a Galaxy Smartphone for just $1, I was taken to this page, where again I'm told that for just $1 I will get a Samsung smartphone. Look very closely and you'll see the fine-print is still there -- but hey, who's going to bother with fine-print when you can get a smartphone for a buck?

Clicking on the "claim" button will take you to another screen that provides a casual link to their "terms and conditions". Here's where they've got you, if you don't read very carefully or simply don't bother checking those terms and conditions.

Let me excerpt from some of those T&C:

"When you register you accept that Flatratephotos.com can charge $1.00 for 14 days membership of Flatratephotos.com.

After the trial period, your membership will be activated automatically, unless you have unsubscribed. We will then deduct $89.00 every 30 days until you unsubscribe. If you do not wish to renew your membership you must therefore remember to cancel it within the period of 14 days from the order date. Membership may not continue on a trial basis after 14 days from the order date."

Claiming your Samsung smartphone means that you agree to be billed regularly (via credit card) until you "unsubscribe". Sounds fair right... and besides, you were previoiusly informed that you only pay $1 for the first 14 days so you can claim your phone, pay $1 then unsubscribe and still be a winner -- right?

"When you register via one of our campaign pages, you will also have the opportunity to receive an introductory gift. The nature of the gift will appear on the campaign page. To receive your gift, you must follow the instructions that will be sent in a separate e-mail. The gift WILL NOT be sent automatically and is only available if you take advantage of the trial period for more than 7 days. If you cancel your trial membership after fewer than 7 days, or if we are not subsequently able to deduct payment using the credit card information provided, the right to the welcome gift is void and your request for the gift will be automatically rejected."

Okay, still no worries right... you can't cancel for the first 7 days but you can cancel on day 8 and still get your Samsung smartphone for just $1 right?

Well perhaps not... let's read on...

"In some cases, the welcome gift shown is not identical with what you will receive and is only shown for inspirational purposes"

What? Hang on... so you are accepting that even though you've been lured in with the promise of a Samsung smartphone, that might not be what you end up getting. Hmm... see why it's important to read these T&C very carefully and how this scam works? You can bet your life that nobody is going to get that Samsung smartphone at all - but, if they accept these T&C then they have no grounds for complaint.

"Your purchase of membership, which is classed as a subscription purchase, is subject to the statutory 14 days’ right of return. You can only return your purchase if you have NOT used your subscription within the 14-day period. Use of your subscription begins as soon as you complete the purchase on Flatratephotos.com. If you wish to exercise the right of return you must log off directly after your purchase, without logging on again. You must then contact customer service by e-mail to inform them that you wish to cancel your purchase. Your subscription will thereafter be terminated and you will receive a form that you are required to complete and return. As you have entered into a subscription agreement, the right of return applies solely to the conclusion of the agreement, and not in connection with the ongoing payment."

Things just keep getting worse for those who haven't read these T&C.

Apparently, although you can cancel the subscription, that doesn't necessary cancel your obligation to pay for it. It seems that they reserve the right to keep billing you for your cancelled subscription. WTF?

And also note that you can only cancel if you haven't actually used your subscription -- yet remember that you have to follow the instructions in a separate email to claim your gift and you can bet your bottom dollar that in order to make the claim, you have to use that subscription -- hence you will no longer be able to cancel within 14 days.

Now lets assume that some poor sucker has blundered into this and paid $1 thinking that they were going to get a Samsung Smartphone. They may not have even noticed the small-print pointing out that they were going to be billed $75 every fortnight from then on. When they get their next credit-card statement they're going to contest the charges but the scammers will simply point out that you willingly accepted their terms and hence your request for a chargeback is invalid. What's more, you've effectively agreed to continue paying, in perpetuity, even if you cancel the subscription.

You are well and truly sunk.

Then imagine receiving a package, only to find that it's not the fancy new Samsung Smartphone you thought you were getting -- but some crappy piece of Chines tat worth only a dollar or two. Once again, you have no come-back. By accepting the T&C you agreed that this was acceptable to you.

Hence the title of today's column.

What a sad world we live in when lowlifes take advantage of people's trust. Or are they simply leveraging people's greed and ignorance to their advantage?

You tell me... in the forums.

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