I have relied on amazon.com for my supply of books for as long as I can remember. Textbooks when I moved to New York for graduate school. Cookbooks when I moved in with a guy. Self help books when I broke up with another one. Amazon has been there for me in all the big moments in my life, knows my dirtiest secrets, is the first one to find out if I am going through a weird raw food or understanding men or understanding the universe phase, helps me sell some books when I am low on cash (that didn't go so well because last moment I would keep the books and refund the buyers), and knows what I want before I even ask . Or at least it's cute when they pick books they think I will like every time I log on my account home page.
And like all love affairs gone sour, my love affair with Amazon ended abruptly.
All it took was a little number, the kind you accidentally find in your boyfriend's pockets when you are doing the laundry.
12/21 55432867359000969544072 AMZ*Prime Club 866-557-2820 NV 79.00.
Only in this case, it was my online December 07 statement.
I am not one of those people that check their statements, save their receipts and balance their checkbooks. But this particular day I was checking on a refund that was going to be credited back to my account. And among multiple identical amount charges from GroundWorks, traces of my recent caffeine addiction, the mysterious code was impossible to miss.
I copied and pasted the unfamiliar number in the google search box like I've done for a million other things, a million other times. I google everything, from unknown numbers that appear on my cell phone screen, to names of guys I have a crush on, to email addresses (you would be surprised what you can find out about people from the traces they leave online), to everything else I am too lazy to pick up the phone and ask about.
Expecting nothing more than a "your search did not match any documents" message, I was surprised when the first 3 google results that popped on my screen were more or less all versions of this : "so I was going through my bank account and noticed a charge from AMZ*Prime Club for $79. I never signed up for..."
I wasn't alone.
The second link was an article on www.businessweek.com by Rob Hof on February 12 (2006) with a picture of Jeff Bezos, the C.E.O. of Amazon, who by the way looks like he has gained a bunch of weight since the last time I saw his picture online.
The article mentioned that Jeff Bezos was giving a lecture about Amazon Prime Club at a Friday night meeting of Silicon Valley's Churhill Club, where apparently all those Silicon Valley nerds sit and talk about stuff like that on Friday nights. It appeared that Amazon Prime Club is a type of membership and $79 is an annual subscription Amazon charges to its Amazon Prime members so they can enjoy "faster and cheaper shipping."
I breathed a sigh of relief that it was good old Steve behind this prime club thingee and not some online scammer, and scratched my head. Was I a member of this club? I did not remember signing up for any memberships. Yeah, paying $79 upfront so I can enjoy free or fast shipping for a year is definetely not my style. I am more of a "take the money and run" kind of girl if you know what I mean.
It took me a while to scroll down to the bottom of the page as my attention kept getting caught by the posts of what appeared to be a million outraged Amazon customers who, like me, had apparently just discovered the $79 charge in their statement.
OK so Amazon didn't exactly print it in big bold letters that our accounts are going to get charged $79 every year.
Still sweating over an amazon prime membership $79 button didn't ring any bells. You would think that a respectable company like Amazon would have been more careful about the placement and size of their buttons.
Like Tim posted on January 23, 2007 12:35 PM "I placed an order at TowerHobbies this week and they have a similar program but a FULL screen comes up with the prices in BIG print and you are given a CHOICE to sign up. That's how it needs to be."
Following the threads, I found out that Amazon Prime started as a free trial that automatically renewed itself unless you logged in your account and cancelled it before the 3-month expiration. Sneaky.
I might be a sucker when it comes to selling me things on the web but I am not illiterate and so I clicked my way to the Amazon Prime Membership Terms and Conditions to read the fine print that apparently I had missed when I apparently signed up for a trial for this mysterious membership that I apparently never cancelled. I quote from their Amazon Prime FAQ : "Yes, your membership is set up to automatically renew annually." Great.
I knew one day there would be payback for checking all those agreement boxes before reading the agreements. This is America, after all.
The disclaimer continues. "If the preferred method is unavailable (for example, a credit card has expired), for your convenience we will use another payment method we have on record for you." For my convenience? How thoughtful!
It gets better. "Your initial sign-up is an authorization for us to use the preferred or other available payment methods." What?? Now that was pushing a little bit too far. When did signing up for a trial ever become equal to authorizing a credit card?
I was pissed off. So not only did Amazon automatically renew my membership without warning, but if my credit card expired they would use another other credit card they have on file under my name without getting my permission. Funny how I always thought it was convenient that I don't have to re-type my credit card number every time I buy a book from Amazon.
So had I not noticed the weird amount on my statement, they would have deducted $79 year after year from my checking account for as long as I live. And if for some reason or another my credit card expired, they would just pick another one. Very convenient.
I am not a lawyer or anything but this sounded a little unethical of a business practice. Kind of like "biting the hand that feeds you."
Apparently I wasn't the only one that felt I was done wrong by Amazon Prime club.
Suzanne Lempka posted on December 16, 2006 07:24 AM "Amazon is intentionally deceitful in tricking people into signing up for a service that very often would be of no use to them." Pfg posted on December 17, 2006 10:09 AM "It had every appearance of a special free shipping rate to entice more purchases."
Teddy P. said on December 20, 2006 12:50 AM "THIS AMAZON MEMBERSHIP IS A RIP OFF. I PUT AN ITEM IN MY SHOPPING CART. THE MESSAGE OF THE CLUB CAME UP AND I CLICKED TO GET INFO. ON THE MEMBERSHIP. IT AUTOMATICALLY ADDED THE MEMBERSHIP TO MY ACCOUNT. I DID NOT EVEN COMPLETE THE PURCHASE FOR THE ITEM IN MY SHOPPING CART, I CLEARED MY SHOPPING CART AND COOKIES/TEMP WEBPAGES FROM MY INTERNET EXPLORER AND THE NEXT DAY, I DISCOVERED A MEMBERSHIP FEE ON MY CREDIT CARD FOR $79 FROM AMAZON.COM. SOMEBODY NEEDS TO PLACE A LAWSUIT AGAINST AMAZON."
It went on and on. Some swore they never signed up for this service. Others said they cancelled their membership and still they were charged. Some claimed their credit cards had expired and Amazon had managed to get their hands on a different credit card and charged it without their authorization. (Apparently they didn't get the memo either.)
The other google link I stumbled upon, an article posted on www.techdirt.com on Wed, Feb 2nd 2005 was also followed by a list of angry posts.
According to the article, signed by Mike Masnick, the new program gives free two-day shipping, and much cheaper overnight shipping. Mike was a bit critical of the service, questioning how many items you would need to order per year for this membership to make sense, and among those, how many were actually books that you were in a hurry to get (and among those, how many actually qualified, may I add.) Apparently even Wall Street had its reservations about how this new annual membership fee would help Amazon. Bezos probably didn't mention that he wasn't exactly planning to get each and everyone's permission before charging them $79.
Feeling that I had done enough research, I called my bank. The disputing people were very understanding and they immediately issued a refund for 2007 which involved some paperwork and investigation that would take a couple of months. Unfortunately they said they couldn't do anything for the 2006 charge. They suggested I contact Amazon.
I logged in to my Amazon account (upper right). Sure enough under Amazon Prime (under subscriptions management on the left side of the page) there were not one but two $79.00 charges placed on December 21, 2007 and December 21, 2006, respectively.
And underneath was the button that was going to save me from an eternity of $79 charges, waiting to be pressed.
So first, I cancelled my 2009 membership that was apparently set to be automatically renewed.
Immediately I got a message in red : "Your account won't be charged $79 on December 21,2008." Gee, thanks!
I was mad. I bitter. I was also minus $79X2=$158 that I could have spent on books, among other things. Most of all I was upset that I was paying $79 a year for 2 years, for "faster and cheaper service" when as far as I could remember books had always taken a couple of weeks to get to me. And I seriously doubt that the 7 or 8 books I ordered last year from Amazon cost $79 in shipping.
They could at least display a "you saved X amount of dollars with Amazon Prime!!" every time I bought a book on the checkout screen, like when you pay for groceries with an Albertson's card. That way I would feel I was actually paying for something. Don't they teach those guys anything at business school?
So now what. I had no clue how I should go about asking for my money back or how to figure out whether or not I had actually used this Amazon Prime service because it was all too confusing. Then I thought, maybe that's what the Amazon Prime people were counting on.
According to "Disco Science" (August 16, 2007 11:06 PM) who claimed he makes "fortune 500 ecommerce websites and even did some work on amazon's code at one time" Amazon is charging "everyone, even people who didn't sign up."
No wonder Amazon's stock had quadrupled.
I decided to follow the advice of my new online friends.
So like Disco said I called 1 866 557 2820, pressed 3 for returns and refunds, then pressed 2 for refunds. "It will play a 10 minute voice message about how to get refunds from sellers etc then give you avoice menu with options to go back to the main menu. Press 4 here, and it will connect you to a live rep, if you tell them you didn't sign up, they will say they have record of you taking the 'free trial', just insist you didn't and they will give you a refund."
Thank God for Google.
The dude that picked up the phone sounded completely unprofessional. He didn't have an operator ID, he called me by my first name without asking me first, which kind of creeped me out, and made me wait for unusually long periods of time while "going through my account" when it sounded more like he was taking his time to think about how to answer my questions. And he didn't say any of these re-assuring things phone people say like "thank you for your patience", "can I put you on hold for just one moment." I would have never guessed this was Amazon's customer service.
It went like this. I asked for a refund, he said no but it sounded like he was just supposed to make me try harder. I asked again, this time he said yes. The whole time it sounded like he was giggling as if this was a prank call or something. I used my best bitch voice to make sure he understood that I was very serious about getting my $158 back. Meanwhile my prime account information history had disappeared from my screen making me very nervous. He assured me that I would get a refund in 2-3 business days. I said I want to get refunded for 2007 and 2006 as well. He said yes. I said so how much money are you putting back in my account? He said $79. I said this was only one year, the whole refund is $158. He said he can't issue a refund for 2006. I said I want to talk to your supervisor, he said ok and then he put me on hold for what seemed like an eternity.
The supervisor, who was a little more polite and at least had a more understandable indian accent, didn't want to give me a refund for 2006. But like Disco said, I insisted I never signed up for it (which was kind of true because I didn't remember). In the end she said that even though I called 2 years too late, she was going to make an exception and issue a 2006 refund, because I had used my prime privileges only once which was also mentioned on their dislcaimer.
And so I ended up getting the refund. Just like Disco said.
"They are told to give refunds without causing a hassle (although they will at first say you signed up for the trial). It is a scam, they are signing people up because they know alot of people wont know how to or wont care to go through the trouble and take the 79$ charge. Just do what I said and they will refund you within 2-3 days."
I was supposed to feel better for being $158 richer but instead I felt weird about how it all went down. Overall it sounded more like I was negotiating for the price of a rug in Turkey. It was very unprofessional for a company so concerned with their customer experience. (The little Amazon email messages I would get inquiring whether I got my books on time always went a long way with me.)
They could say whatever they wanted about the fine print, but the bottom line is that taking $79 out of my bank account year after year was cheap. Not to mention I didn't trust them any more. And in case you didn't know, once you break a woman's trust it's broken forever.
Back on my inbox I already had received a very professional "Subscriptions Cancelled Notification" notice from Amazon.com. confirming that my subscription has indeed been cancelled. The message read : "Your membership benefits have now ended. Thank you for trying Amazon Prime and shopping at Amazon.com."
Yeah, like it was going to be that easy.
To all book readers everywhere, consider this my online donation. Redeem your $79 coupon today. And if something happens to me (remember ... Jeff Bezos knows where i live!) please pass the memo.
P.S. I deleted all my credit cards from Amazon.com (Disco's advise) and from now on I will be buying books from barnesandnoble.com. This is America, after all.