Misleading Subscription Practices At The Financial Times

from the come-on,-eileen dept

We've spent years highlighting how ISPs especially tend to really screw customers over with things like hidden fees or (a personal least favorite) "low introductory prices" that hide the price jump you'll face at the end of the term. Broadband providers can often get away with those practices thanks to absentee overseers at the FCC/FTC and importantly, the lack of competition. But it's absolutely insane to see those in competitive or struggling organizations pulling the same kinds of stunts. Right now there's all this concern out there about media business models, and lots of publications are pushing people to sign up for their subscription plans. There are lots to choose from, and playing stupid games is not a good idea. That's why I was a bit flabbergasted by the following story, which comes from Hersh Reddy, who co-hosts the Techdirt Podcast. He shared with me this following chat he had with the Financial Times.

You can read the whole insane thing below, in which it appears that FT's policies are designed to trick people (i.e., it's not at all the fault of the poor woman he's speaking to). Specifically, it appears that FT has two "cheap" offers to try to get people: one that is $1 for the first 4 weeks, and another that says a full subscription is $144/year. Here's how it looks on the site:

Notice that on the trial part it says: "Not sure which package to choose? Try full access for 4 weeks." That certainly implies that at the end of the 4 weeks (or within an hour of signing up as you'll see below), you should then be able to "choose" another "package" from this page. But that's not what happened with Hersh, as you'll see:

Eileen (9:17:19 AM): How may I help you?

Eileen (9:17:27 AM): Hi. My name is Eileen. It's a pleasure meeting you on chat. How may I assist you?

Me (9:17:51 AM): I just started a trial subscription and the billing page says the subscription rate is $60+ once it goes onto the regular rate.

Me (9:18:15 AM): But when I look on the subscription page there seems to be cheaper options for pure digital.

Eileen (9:18:28 AM): I would be glad to check your query.

Me (9:18:33 AM): Why does the trial convert at such an expensive rate?

Eileen (9:19:03 AM): Trial offer is available for the premium level of access.

Me (9:19:33 AM): So if I use the trial I can't access the other subscription rates?

Eileen (9:19:48 AM): After 4 weeks, the subscription will automatically renewe in to premium, unless you make changes or stop the auto renewal within 4 weeks.

Me (9:20:20 AM): Is it possible to set my desired subscription after the trial period now, or do I have to wait till after the trial period?

Eileen (9:22:27 AM): We can make changes now, and the change will take effect after the trial period.

Eileen (9:22:33 AM): I will need to ask you a couple of questions in order to locate your account and assist you, is that okay?

Me (9:22:59 AM): ok

Eileen (9:23:03 AM): Thank you, can I start by getting your name, email address and phone number?

Me (9:23:13 AM): Hersh Reddy

Me (9:23:18 AM): REDACTED

Me (9:23:22 AM): REDACTED

Eileen (9:23:26 AM): And lastly, I want to make sure that I am looking at the right account, may I have the payment instrument you use for the FT subscription?

Me (9:23:36 AM): A visa credit card

Eileen (9:24:19 AM): Thank you Hersh. Let me pull up your account now.

Eileen (9:25:24 AM): I can see that your trial subscription ends on Aug 7th.

Eileen (9:25:34 AM): This will renew automatically on that day.

Eileen (9:25:48 AM): We have a digital subscription which is USD 36.00 a month.

Eileen (9:26:08 AM): Digital subscription allows you to have access to online articles and app, except for premium content like lex, epaper, em squared and ft confidential research.

Me (9:26:18 AM): I see that there is a Digital subscription on the FT page that is $2.77/week

Eileen (9:27:13 AM): That will be the equivalent weekly cost of digital annually.

Me (9:27:35 AM): Ok, I would like that.

Eileen (9:27:49 AM): USD 335.40 orUSD 6.45.

Eileen (9:27:57 AM): USD 6.45 per week.

Me (9:28:10 AM): It says 2.77/week on the web page

Me (9:28:47 AM): I'm looking at this web page https://www.ft.com/products

Eileen (9:28:49 AM): How much is the annual cost on line?

Eileen (9:29:10 AM): Let me check the link Hersh.

Me (9:29:50 AM): $144 is the annual cost

Eileen (9:30:56 AM): Can you forward the email to me?

Eileen (9:31:13 AM): I mean can you screenshot the page and email that to me.

Eileen (9:31:33 AM): Can I send you an email instead, and please reply with the screenshot?

Me (9:32:20 AM): ok

Eileen (9:33:21 AM): Thank you.

Eileen (9:33:23 AM): Done.

Me (9:34:08 AM): sent it

Me (9:35:25 AM): I also sent a screenshot of the link I clicked on the subscription page

Eileen (9:35:39 AM): Thank you.

Eileen (9:35:46 AM): Allow me to check these further.

Eileen (9:36:08 AM): Right.

Me (9:36:30 AM): You can click through the subscription to the billing page yourself

Eileen (9:36:40 AM): I can go ahead and apply the USD 144.00 rate to your subscription for Digital access after the trial period ends.

Me (9:36:55 AM): Thanks, I appreaciate your help.

Me (9:37:18 AM): Can you send me an email to confirm that you will do that, so I have it for my records.

Eileen (9:37:36 AM): Sorry, when did you see the offer?

Me (9:37:44 AM): Its on the page right now

Eileen (9:37:44 AM): The USD144.00 offer?

Me (9:37:52 AM): I'm looking at it right now

Eileen (9:38:01 AM): Can you also send me the front page withe the date?

Me (9:38:05 AM): yes

Me (9:38:27 AM): There's no date on the front page

Me (9:38:48 AM): FT.com doesn't have a date.

Me (9:39:16 AM): Also, you can verify the rate yourself by just going to FT.com and clicking the subscription page and then clicking the subscription options.

Eileen (9:39:20 AM): That's what I am doing right now.

Eileen (9:39:28 AM): Please hold on for a few minutes.

Me (9:41:36 AM): If you need help, its this page: https://www.ft.com/products

Me (9:41:50 AM): That gives the list of subscription types

Me (9:42:11 AM): Then if you click the second product it will take you to the subscription billing page. At the bottom of the page is the annual rate.

Eileen (9:42:20 AM): Let me access this now.

Me (9:42:40 AM): If you have a problem try clearing your cache and loading the page again.

Eileen (9:43:32 AM): Hersh, what I will do is to verify the offer first with our marketing team.

Eileen (9:43:42 AM): Can I email you back once it is confirmed?

Eileen (9:43:49 AM): Apologies for the delays.

Me (9:43:52 AM): Sure. But don't you see it there on the web page?

Eileen (9:44:27 AM): No.

Eileen (9:44:42 AM): That is the reason I need to confirm the offer with our marketing team.

Me (9:44:46 AM): Did you click the link I sent you?

Me (9:44:48 AM): https://www.ft.com/products

Me (9:45:17 AM): If you have your own subscription it won't show you the subscription page.

Me (9:45:36 AM): You have to use a browser where you are not logged in with your own account to FT.com

Eileen (9:46:04 AM): i know how to do that, Hersh.

Eileen (9:46:23 AM): The thing is, we do not see the USD 144.00 offer on our website.

Me (9:46:40 AM): look I'm sending you another screenshot

Eileen (9:46:41 AM): That is why we need help of our relevant team.

Eileen (9:46:51 AM): Sure,.

Me (9:47:35 AM): Where are you located? Is it possible you get a different page than what I get in the USA?

Me (9:48:00 AM): This is rather extraordianry

Eileen (9:48:03 AM): It has to be USA.

Me (9:48:17 AM): I am in the USA ... are you abroad?

Eileen (9:48:50 AM): FT is global company Hersh.

Eileen (9:49:22 AM): I am not in the USA but I can access the subscription page and we should be aware if there is ongoing offer.

Me (9:49:23 AM): I know. Is the webpage different in different countries? I mean do you have different subscription offer pages based on location?

Eileen (9:49:28 AM): No.

Me (9:49:44 AM): How is it you can't see the same subscription page as me?

Me (9:49:55 AM): Can you use a proxy to browse from the USA?

Eileen (9:50:10 AM): We need confirmation by our relevant team.

Eileen (9:50:29 AM): If you can hold the line that would be better, is that okay Hersh?

Me (9:50:37 AM): yeah, I will hold

Eileen (9:51:27 AM): Thank you very much Hersh.

Eileen (9:51:46 AM): I am consulting them right now.

Eileen (9:55:23 AM): Almost done, Hersh.

Eileen (9:55:27 AM): Please hold on.

Me (9:55:31 AM): yep

Eileen (9:56:14 AM): Thank you for holding.

Eileen (9:56:26 AM): I got a confirmation from the marketing team.

Eileen (9:56:45 AM): The $144.00 annual digital rate is available for new subscribers in the US.

Me (9:56:45 AM): How come you were getting a different web page than me?

Eileen (9:57:41 AM): What I can do is to switch youu subscription to digital and give you a 25% discounted rate.

Me (9:58:13 AM): So you can't do the trial and then the $144 subscription?

Me (9:58:44 AM): do you mean a 25% discount on the $144 rate?

Me (9:58:58 AM): or on the $360 rate?

Eileen (9:59:11 AM): 25% discounted rate is USD 249.08.

Me (9:59:40 AM): I thought you just said the rate was confirmed as $144?

Me (9:59:57 AM): I'm a new subscriber in the USA

Me (10:00:05 AM): I literally just tried to sign up today

Me (10:00:29 AM): In fact, I signed up right before I initiated this chat with you

Eileen (10:00:35 AM): I am sorry, however, you already have a trial subscription.

Me (10:00:41 AM): HAHAHAHAHAHA

Me (10:00:51 AM): Okay, okay

Me (10:00:54 AM): understood

Eileen (10:01:35 AM): If you wish, I can still get an approval if we could apply any discounted rate to your digital subscription that is closest to USD 144.00.

Me (10:01:36 AM): So, Iet me get this. I clicked the link for the trial at $1 for 4 weeks. As a result of this I'm not a new subscriber. So I can't get the $144/year.

Me (10:01:54 AM): Even though ... I JUST signed up

Eileen (10:01:55 AM): That is correct.

Me (10:02:15 AM): Is it possible to cancel my trial membership right now and redo it as the year subscription?

Eileen (10:02:30 AM): Even if you click the link yourself online, it won't allow you to subscribe to it because you already have a trial subscription right now.

Eileen (10:02:39 AM): Technically, you are a subscriber to the FT.

Me (10:03:06 AM): Technically, I get it. But I mean, non-technically, can we cancel my current trial and just put me on the annual subscription.

Eileen (10:03:15 AM): Yes.

Me (10:03:28 AM): At the $144 rate?

Eileen (10:03:42 AM): You can cancel your trial subscription online via my account or click this link https://myaccount.ft.com/

Me (10:04:00 AM): And then redo it at the $144 rate?

Eileen (10:04:19 AM): Closest to $144 rate, but I will ask approval first and I will get back to you on that.

Me (10:05:23 AM): You need to get approval to cancel the trial membership I signed up for just prior to this chat, to convert it to the current annual subscription rate advertised on your newspaper web page?

Eileen (10:05:54 AM): I need to get an approval if I can honour the discounted rate to your subscription.

Me (10:05:57 AM): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oc-P8oDuS0Q

Me (10:06:07 AM): COME ON EILEEN, IM BEGGIN YOU PLEASE

Me (10:06:13 AM): hahaha

Eileen (10:06:29 AM): However, it won't be USD 144.00, but I can check if there is a discounted rate closest to USD 144.00.

Me (10:06:47 AM): Come on ... that is ridiculous

Me (10:07:23 AM): So because I clicked the link that said get 4 weeks for $1/week, now I can't get the annual subscription at $144?

Eileen (10:07:33 AM): That is correct.

Me (10:08:14 AM): Ok, take care. At the very least I'll get some karma on Reddit.

Me (10:08:28 AM): You don't need to ask your manager. I'll just do the subscription through the website.

Me (10:08:29 AM): Cheers.

Eileen (10:08:53 AM): Are you sure you do not need me to get an approval for this Hersh?

Me (10:09:42 AM): I'm sure. Because I don't want to subscribe at a rate more than $144/year, just on principle. I'll just do WSJ for this year.

Me (10:09:57 AM): Take care

Eileen (10:10:21 AM): Well, if you will see that USD 144.00 rate on the subscription page of the FT.com, you should also see, I believe that is written on the website, that this is available for new subscribers that is why it is on the subscription landing page.

Eileen (10:10:33 AM): Thank you, too Hersh.

Me (10:10:39 AM): Of course. Not your fault. FT's fault.

Eileen (10:10:55 AM): Apologies for the confusion.

Eileen (10:11:24 AM): Hersh, I will still make a request for approval and I will send you an email for the progress within 24 hours.

Eileen (10:11:35 AM): I will keep the case open.

Eileen (10:11:35 AM): May I know if there will be any more assistance I can offer today?

Me (10:11:50 AM): That's it

Eileen (10:12:04 AM): Thank you for contacting Financial Times Customer Services. Have a great day! Goodbye now, Hersh.

As a post script, Eileen did eventually call him and say that she got approval to offer him a rate of $149 -- which is still $5 more than it should be. Also, as a clarification, while she claims in the story that the signup page for the $144 price says it's for new customers only that is not true. It's too big to stick in the post, but you can see it here if you'd like.

This is the kind of shady bait-and-switch practices that broadband companies try to get away with. It's pretty shameful to see FT trying it as well. Especially in a time where newspapers are desperate for subscribers. It certainly seems like a damn good reason not to give any money to the FT. Their reporting may be good, but these practices are sketchy.


Reader Comments

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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 13 Jul 2018 @ 7:51am

    Jesus. I know one place I won't be putting my money. Ever.

    I wonder what genius thought this would be a great idea that wouldn't backfire badly into people avoiding FT like the plague.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 13 Jul 2018 @ 9:30am

      Re:

      I think the FT is one of those publications that knows it can coast along to a degree based on its historical reputation even if they are ripping off subscribers. It takes a while for a respected name like that to lose its lustre, especially if the subscribers still feel they are getting quality content. By the time any pushback is truly felt, whoever made these decisions will likely be long gone.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2018 @ 10:49am

      Re:

      I wonder what genius thought this would be a great idea that wouldn't backfire badly into people avoiding FT like the plague.

      I might argue that this is a relatively cheap lesson for the subscriber to read the fine print carefully before putting money into anything. Such financial education would seem to fall well within the bailiwick of the Financial Times...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 13 Jul 2018 @ 12:51pm

        Re: Re:

        I wonder if it was written in the fine print. I think the issue here is that even if you read the whole fine print you wouldn't expect the trade between Hershe and Eileen for instance.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2018 @ 1:48pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          I wonder if it was written in the fine print.

          The screenshot's too small to tell. I see a "*" (which is nonsense in a medium with hyperlinking, but nevermind that...). I'm going to guess the other end says "for new subscribers only". Eileen is technically correct, the best kind of correct, that someone with a paid trial subscription isn't a "new subscriber".

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Mike Masnick (profile), 13 Jul 2018 @ 4:19pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            The screenshot's too small to tell. I see a "*" (which is nonsense in a medium with hyperlinking, but nevermind that...). I'm going to guess the other end says "for new subscribers only". Eileen is technically correct, the best kind of correct, that someone with a paid trial subscription isn't a "new subscriber".

            I went through the terms of service that the asterisk links to it. IT DOES NOT say for new subscribers only.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2018 @ 9:21pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              So, it's a lie. I must have missed your text after the giant transcript. The FTC might remain absent, as you say, or might (after we've forgotten about this story) make the company promise to refrain from false advertising for a decade. I don't recall seeing serious penalties, even for serious violations.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael, 13 Jul 2018 @ 9:57am

    "Can you use a proxy to browse from the USA?"

    Did Hersh just violate the CFAA by suggesting someone circumvent authorized access?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 13 Jul 2018 @ 10:19am

      Re:

      One might argue that they connect with their VPN server that is based in the US and then connect with some website. From one point of view they would be accessing that website from the US. Whether that argument would work in the face of some antagonistic bureaucrat is another story.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2018 @ 10:37am

    Quite often these kind of sales campaigns are set up and run by contracted third party companies, a fact that they are almost never forthcoming about. There's a good reason why many of them prefer to use online [text] chat these days instead of voice or by phone call, because you probably won't understand the person's heavy (usually Asian) accent anyway.

    For understandable reasons the mainstream press rarely reports on such stories, so it's always good to see this kind of thing being reported on far and wide. Of course, for anyone not "straight off the farm" such stories about deceptive advertising traps are not news at all but sadly something all of us have come to expect in everyday life since at least early adulthood, when all of us at least once bit that baited hook and learned a hard lesson from it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael, 13 Jul 2018 @ 11:48am

    Hersh, I am genuinely impressed that you made it from 9:17 to 10:05 before you threw in a "come on eileen" reference.

    That is serious self-control.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2018 @ 12:01pm

    Good rule of thumb

    If it is on the internet and some one ask for money it is a scam.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Richard Forno (profile), 13 Jul 2018 @ 12:52pm

    This is so like the present FT. I suspect Nikkei's purchase of them a few years ago is partly if not majorly to blame for such things.

    Back in Nov they made a big deal about how their site formatting was going to change from a 'newspaper' website look to a 'feed' look more optimized for mobile. They previewed the look for months and you could switch back and forth at-will.

    The new look did not sit well w/me and I asked them if it was going to be a permanent thing or not and when, since my subscription was coming up for renewal. The customer service drones simply offered a pablum response that said how much they listen to customers, blah blah blah ... didn't even acknowledge my question or remotely answer it despite a few back-and-forths. So I regrettably let my already discounted subscription espire -- mainly on principle.

    'tis a shame, b/c the FT offers some fantastic global reporting and most folks I know prefer it to the WSJ these days. Not to mention, it's one of the few news sites where a person actually can learn from the reader comments and have adult, meaningful discussions/debates on articles w/o noticeable trolling and noise -- and the authors will participate, too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Vidiot (profile), 13 Jul 2018 @ 1:19pm

    Makes more than a little sense to me. If you've got capital assets and need to stay in the know, paying progressively more for the Financial Times, even on a minute-by-minute basis, is offset by the ever-increasing returns you're getting on your investments, thanks to your jacked-up subscription.

    Using that logic, I'm going to try subscribing to the Po' Folks' Times (much more up my alley), and see if the subscription price continually drops until they're sending me a sack of cash every month.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2018 @ 3:18pm

    I don't think we're getting the full story. There are asterisks next to the prices that are not explained.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 13 Jul 2018 @ 4:20pm

      Re:

      The asterisk takes you to a "terms of service." I read them. They do not say for new subscribers only.

      Even if they did, it's shady to hide that in the fine print. But they do not.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2018 @ 9:23pm

        Re: Re:

        Could you provide a link in addition to the screenshot? Or is it impractical because of that different-by-country problem mentioned?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mononymous Tim (profile), 13 Jul 2018 @ 7:21pm

    She got Rickrolled, Eileen style.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Unhappy customers, 16 Jul 2018 @ 7:22am

    Nothing new here

    The obvious solution is to get a stack of $5 prepaid cards and email addresses, and sign up for $1 a week, once a month.

    "New customers only" pricing is nothing new. Broadband, cable, wireless, even car companies do it all the time.

    It's the flip side of "customer loyalty" programs. Ill-advised, to be sure, but hardly newsworthy.

    Shoot, way back in ... 2001? ish - Nextel refused to offer me "new customer pricing" on a phone at the end of my contract, so I walked across the mall and bought from a competitor - just as Hersh "offered" to do.

    FT will likely take longer to fold than Nextel did, but shady business practices often come with a price.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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