Moneybox

The Past Year Has Been a Small Nightmare of Recurring Charges

From commuter benefits that went unused to gym memberships that were way too hard to cancel.

A calculator on top of several hundred dollar bills. 
targovcom
Hidden recurring charges have been sneaking up on people during the pandemic. targovcom/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Recurring charges can be a nuisance to manage in normal times: that gym membership you have to jump through hoops to drop, that makeup box of tinted moisturizes and lipstick samples you keep forgetting to cancel. During the pandemic, they have been made even more complicated by the clumsy waltz of businesses shuttering and reopening.

As vaccinations increase across the country, some businesses are poised to once again start charging cards without getting a go-ahead from consumers. Most AMC theaters are showing films, and the chain emailed subscribers to its monthly movie pass program to alert them that their plans will be “automatically reactivated” in July (though this is an improvement on the initial plan to start charging subscribers who didn’t cancel as of March 1). ClassPass—a subscription to credits that can be used to book trendy fitness classes at a discount—recently sent an email notifying members that their plans will automatically unpause on March 29, at which point  they will “begin auto-renewing monthly.” While it seems timed to leaders in NYC and Los Angeles recently announcing that indoor fitness classes can resume, it also seems a little questionable to resume charging people for them automatically. All U.S. adults aren’t even eligible for vaccinations yet—not to mention that there’s a difference between being vaccinated and it being necessarily advisable to jump around in a sweaty room with strangers.

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At least ClassPass sent an email alert and allows for customers to cancel anytime online. The New York Sports Club, a network of gyms that declared bankruptcy last year, settled a lawsuit earlier this month for allegedly denying membership cancellations, even when their gyms closed because of COVID-19 restrictions. Some suffering businesses aren’t refusing cancellation requests but are making things difficult by charging fees to freeze a currently somewhat useless membership—ClassPass will soon make users fork over $9 a month if they’d like stay paused and hang onto any unused credits—or requiring that people either cancel through “certified mail” or in person, even though we are still in a pandemic. Writing on Medium, Maya Kosoff describes recently needing to put on two masks, take a subway, and endure a little in-person judgment from a Planet Fitness representative to end her gym membership.

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Amid the personal and financial burden of this pandemic era, remembering to cancel a recurring charge easily escapes people’s attention and to-do lists. The stakes can be much higher than a monthly gym fee. A recent report by the New York Times featured Long Island-based commuters who had issues with a benefit program that automatically shaves money off paychecks and puts it toward transit expenses, untaxed. During the pandemic, when the need to take a train into work stopped, the benefit collection didn’t, and many forgot to cancel it. People have hundreds of dollars in transit benefits stored that are inaccessible and potentially unusable. The chairman of the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council told the paper that there’s a black market of people spending the money on passes and selling them at a discount. As one commuter with over $662.50 tied up told the Times: “I feel the rules have to be reconsidered based on everything that changed in the pandemic.”

Since companies and transit authorities might not have an incentive to alert consumers of recurring charges, here’s a timely reminder to check your own memberships that might be paused—or need pausing—before it’s too late. This also goes for workout apps or streaming services that you might find yourself not using as vaccinations increase. But while you’re at it, check in with your own comfort level too. As Centers for Disease Control and Preventino Director Rochelle Walensky reminded us earlier this week, while we might be craving normalcy, there’s a large cost to rushing it.

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