Federal law on automatic renewals has gotten stronger and more far-reaching in recent years. This has come in response to states like California that have started to take the lead when it comes to protecting consumers against deceptive advertising and business fraud. There are several prominent laws at both the California state level and the federal level that govern retail subscription programs and automatic renewal programs, including the FTC Rule on Automatic Renewals. Additionally, both state and federal agencies have begun increasing their enforcement of these laws in recent years. For example, the California Automatic Renewal Task Force (CART) makes sure that businesses comply with California’s Automatic Renewal Law (ARL), while the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is actively enforcing federal laws regulating negative options and recurring contracts. Before contacting federal or state agencies, consumers who have been billed without consent for an auto-renewal subscription should speak with a qualified consumer protection attorney.
To learn more about the federal law on automatic renewal subscriptions, keep reading this blog.
What Is the Federal Trade Commission Rule on Auto-Renewals?
Companies that do business in California while offering automatic renewal and subscription programs must comply with applicable state and federal laws, including the California Automatic Renewal Law (ARL). In fact, California has served as a model for automatic renewal legislation passed by other states, as well as federal statutes and rules that govern auto-renewals.
Federal law uses slightly different terminology for automatic renewal subscriptions: they are instead referred to as “negative option plans.” Basically, a negative option plan is one that is automatically renewed if the consumer fails to take any kind of affirmative action to cancel or not renew it.
The California false advertising lawyers at Tauler Smith LLP represent plaintiffs in civil litigation both individually and as members of class action lawsuits. We also regularly appear in both state and federal courts, so we are very familiar with the relevant consumer protection laws.
How Is the Federal Automatic Renewal Law Enforced?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces federal law on automatic renewals and the Negative Option Rule. Federal guidelines for automatic renewals tend to focus on up-front disclosures from businesses, informed consent from customers, and uncomplicated cancellation procedures.
In addition to the FTC, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is also involved in enforcement of federal laws concerning automatic renewal and subscription practices.
Proposed Amendment to FTC Rule on Automatic Renewals
The FTC proposed an amendment to the agency rule on automatic renewals that could have a serious impact on how companies do business in California and other states. When the FTC asked for public input on auto-renewal policies, the response was overwhelming: the federal agency received thousands of comments from consumers who complained that businesses were deceptively renewing subscriptions without consent.
Some pro-business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have objected to the FTC’s proposed rules for auto renewal subscription services, which the group says would “impose substantial and burdensome regulations on the business community.” But similar consumer fraud regulations already exist in California: statutes like the Automatic Renewal Law (ARL), the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), and the Unfair Competition Law (UCL) all provide strong protections for consumers against companies that do business in the state.
If the FTC rule change is approved and goes into effect, it will certainly affect businesses that offer automatic renewal plans in California and other states. That’s because federal law would allow for the imposition of civil penalties of up to $50,000 for each violation of the law.
Other Federal Laws Regulating Automatic Renewals: ROSCA and TSR
The Federal Trade Commission rule on negative options is the main federal law that governs automatic renewal offers by companies. In addition to the FTC rule, there are a couple of other federal statutes that also apply to automatic renewals:
- The Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA)
- The Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR)
Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA)
Under federal law, there are disclosure requirements for auto-renewal terms when a customer signs up for a subscription online. The Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA) requires companies to clearly and conspicuously disclose “all material terms of the transaction” prior to obtaining the customer’s billing information. ROSCA also imposes on businesses a requirement to obtain express informed consent for an auto-renewal plan before getting customers’ billing information.
Unfortunately for consumers, ROSCA has limited application to auto-renewal plans because it only applies to online purchases.
Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR)
Another important federal law governing automatic renewals is the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). The TSR requires certain disclosures when a telemarketer offers a product or service that includes an automatic renewal subscription, such as the material terms and conditions of the purchase.
State Laws: What Is the California Law on Automatic Renewals of Subscriptions?
California’s Automatic Renewal Law (ARL) goes even further than federal law by explicitly prohibiting companies from auto-renewing subscriptions without first obtaining affirmative consent from the subscriber. That type of consent can only be given when the customer is aware of what exactly they are agreeing to, so this means companies must “clearly and conspicuously” disclose the subscription terms, including the price of the service, length of the subscription, and any recurring charges. Clear and conspicuous disclosure can be achieved by using all-caps, highlighted text, colored text, boldface font, and anything else that might contrast or differentiate an auto-subscription from other terms or conditions.
Canceling Subscriptions Under California’s ARL
The California Auto Renewal Task Force (CART) is a group of district attorneys in Los Angeles County, San Diego County, Santa Barbara County, Santa Clara County, and Santa Cruz County who enforce the ARL against companies that mislead and deceive California consumers with confusing subscription policies that automatically renew without authorization and that can be difficult to cancel afterwards.
Doug Allen, an assistant district attorney with the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office and also a member of CART, says that the ARL is specifically designed “to make it as easy to get out of [an auto-renewal subscription] as it was to get into it.” The ARL stipulates that businesses must provide full disclosure to customers about the terms and conditions of all subscription renewal plans, including automatic renewals. Additionally, the ARL requires businesses to make it easy for customers to cancel a subscription on the backend.
Most Common Violations of the California ARL
Some of the most egregious violations of the California Automatic Renewal Law (ARL) involve companies that intentionally make it tough for a customer to cancel by bouncing the customer around when they call or email. For example, a retailer might inform the customer that they will need to speak to a “supervisor” who is conveniently never available. This is done with the full intention of ensuring that the customer remains enrolled in the subscription program. When a customer tries to cancel on the company’s website, the site needs to be easy to navigate and the cancellation process needs to be simple. The ARL also prohibits businesses from attempting to drag out the cancellation with an online survey; any surveys must be provided after the cancellation is complete.
Contact the California Consumer Protection Lawyers at Tauler Smith LLP
Tauler Smith LLP is a law firm that handles consumer fraud litigation in both state and federal courts across the United States. Our consumer protection lawyers have extensive experience representing plaintiffs in these matters, so we understand the nuances of automatic renewal laws that may apply in your particular case. If you were billed for a monthly subscription contract that was automatically renewed without your consent, we can assist you. Call or email us now to schedule a free initial consultation.