To celebrate its 20th anniversary on Wednesday, online retailer Amazon offered a sale it promised would have “more deals than Black Friday.” But tricky wording on the company’s website may leave many Quebecers with an unexpected surprise on their credit card bill.
The sale, which offered steep discounts on everything from televisions to stationary bikes, had a catch: membership in Amazon’s Prime program was required.
The text that greeted visitors to Amazon’s Canadian site on Wednesday read, “Try Prime today and unlock access to exclusive deals.” A button below that text invited, “Start your 30-day free trial.*”
The fine print below read, “After your free trial, Amazon Prime is just CDN$ 79.00/year (plus any applicable taxes). Cancel anytime. *Quebec residents receive an initial 13-month membership instead of a free trial.” The text on the French version of the site made the same claim.
“I can certainly see how some people could be misled to think it’s a 13-month free trial,” Patrice Blais, a law professor at Concordia University, told Ricochet. “And people won’t find out it’s misleading until 30 days from now, when they see the charge on their credit card bill.”
Ricochet reached out to Amazon on Wednesday morning to ask about the text on their website. A spokesperson for the company responded shortly after 6 p.m. EST with an email reading, “Thanks for reaching out and bringing this up. We’ve added additional details for customers on the site.”
Later on Wednesday the original text was removed from Amazon’s Canadian site, replaced by a new caveat for Quebec customers: “Quebec residents receive an initial 13-month membership for CDN $79, instead of a free trial.”
Amazon has not responded to Ricochet’s requests for an interview.
“The issue is that for at least 12 hours on what the company certainly intended to be its highest traffic day of the year, any number of Quebec visitors to this site may have signed up for what they thought was a 13-month free membership,” added Blais. “They may not know that they need to cancel within 30 days to avoid being charged.”
Did Amazon violate Quebec laws?
But the problems for Amazon may go deeper than the potentially misleading text on its website, which it has now corrected.
Section 230 of Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act forbids sales in which goods or services are offered for free or at a reduced rate, and the customer must contact the company to cancel if they don’t want to continue receiving the service at the regular price once the trial period ends.
Ricochet has learned that Quebec’s consumer protection office warned Amazon that their offer did not comply with Quebec law prior to Wednesday.
“The Office de la protection du consommateur recently contacted Amazon to make the company aware of that provision of Quebec’s legislation,” spokesperson Charles Tanguay told Ricochet by email. “This is probably why they decided to change their offer for Quebec residents.”
But no matter what text is on the website, the structure of the deal offered by Amazon appears to violate Quebec law.
A Quebec-based Ricochet journalist signed up to see what would happen. Hidden in the journalist’s account settings, they found a countdown clock. Cancel within 30 days, or $79 will be automatically charged to your credit card.
“When you get a continuous service there’s a limit on the penalty for cancellation,” said Blais. “So can they charge a 100% penalty after one month of a 13-month membership?”
Blais told Ricochet that the offer could run afoul of the law on multiple grounds.
“According to the act, the monthly cost of the service must be stated, and all the customer has to do to cancel is send a written notice. The act also specifies that the only penalty which can be charged for early cancellation is $50, or 10 per cent of the pro-rated remainder of the contract, whichever is lesser.”
“Many of these online retailers don’t know consumer protection law. If the monthly charge is not written, and the penalty does not reflect the requirements of the act, then there’s a problem. Under Quebec law, the maximum penalty for cancellation of this contract should be under $8. Instead it appears to be the full $79 after 30 days.”
“Amazon is a big company, and if they want to act like a good corporate citizen they should promise to refund anyone who says they were misled.”