A Consumerist reader recently went to run some errands and found the charge to her debit card was declined due to insufficient funds. She was puzzled — that account should have had at least $100 in it. So why were her funds insufficient? Because her Amazon Prime subscription had renewed on that card that day — even though she’d never once set up Prime to bill to it.
The reader, Laura, wrote to us to explain what happened: on Sept. 26, she was out and about. She bought lunch and her debit card was accepted, but at her next stop it was declined. So she pulled out her phone to look at her banking balance online and found — surprise! — a $99 Prime renewal fee from Amazon.
The part that took her by surprise isn’t so much that Prime auto-renewed; most consumers know they’re in for an annual subscription fee there, and she knew hers would renew in late September. No, the part that surprised her was the way it renewed, because Laura’s Prime subscription had never been associated with that debit card.
“This is a new debit card, so I have never used it to purchase a Prime membership,” Laura tells Consumerist. “It was simply a different payment method available in my account.”
Indeed, Laura’s Prime subscription was set up to use a different credit card entirely. But in the year since her last Prime renewal in 2015, that credit card had expired. It’s an easy thing to forget, especially if the credit card is one you don’t use much.
The sudden unauthorized charge to her debit card not only wiped out Laura’s funds for the day, but for the week, and caused her to incur a low-balance fee from her bank.
As you might expect, Laura was livid. She called Amazon customer service immediately, she tells Consumerist: “The customer service representative I spoke to explained that an alternative payment method had been used from my account. The solution she was able to offer was to cancel the Prime renewal, which would refund the charge to my debit card, but it would take up to 10 days for the money to be returned to my account.”
And then the CSR, probably following their script, added insult to injury, Laura reports. “Her follow-up question was to ask what account I would like my Prime membership charged to. The phrase she kept repeating was, ‘I’m just the messenger.'”
Amazon did send a “this card on your file will be expiring” automated email several months earlier, Laura says, but there was never any indication that Prime would bill something else entirely if she didn’t update it in the intervening period.
“I fully expected that if I did not do this by the renewal date that my Prime account would not be renewed,” she wrote in an email to Amazon that she also shared with us.
“At no point did I authorize Amazon to charge any account, other than the one I expressly indicated, for my Prime membership,” she continued. “I have never received any indication that providing payment for other purposes was implying that I consented that this payment information be used for future purposes without my express consent.”
Indeed, very few consumers would expect that. Years of auto-renewing subscriptions and online credit card use at a wide array of retailers, including Amazon, have mostly taught us to expect that if our card expires or is for some other reason invalid, we will receive an email telling us so at the time of billing. A highly informal, unscientific survey of Consumerist staff and friends show that most of us would assume that if billing fails, we’d get some kind of email saying “your card expired,” or,” give us new payment information immediately or we cancel your renewal or account.”
But that’s not how Prime works. Laura received no email communication when her account billed to the card she’d never chosen to associate with it in the first place, and that led to her day of unexpected issues.
In addition to refunding the $99 Prime fee, Amazon also agreed to issue a credit to cover the overdraft and low-balance fees Laura expected to incur as a result of the surprise charge. (That’s the good news.)
Still, Laura says, she’s not happy it happened. “I remain deeply upset by this incident,” she wrote in an email to Amazon executive customer service (the email address of one Jeff Bezos).
“The ‘best case scenario’ is that the money that was taken from my checking account without my authorization will, eventually, be returned to me. In the interim, I am left with an empty checking account, will have to continue to speak with representatives from my bank regarding potential overage charges that may result from any attempted transactions during the next few days, and lost an hour of unexpected time from my workday today to address this problem.”
Is This Allowed?
The CSR was right about one thing, though: she was just the messenger. This was no error; Amazon explicitly allows it.
Although many customers probably haven’t noticed it in the small print, the Amazon Prime terms and conditions do indeed say that Amazon can charge any payment method you have on file if it wants to.
Under the header “Fees and Renewal,” Amazon writes (added emphasis ours):
If all eligible payment methods we have on file for you are declined for payment of your membership fee, you must provide us a new eligible payment method promptly or your membership will be canceled.
UNLESS YOU NOTIFY US BEFORE A CHARGE THAT YOU WANT TO CANCEL OR DO NOT WANT TO AUTO RENEW, YOU UNDERSTAND YOUR PRIME MEMBERSHIP WILL AUTOMATICALLY CONTINUE AND YOU AUTHORIZE US (WITHOUT NOTICE TO YOU, UNLESS REQUIRED BY APPLICABLE LAW) TO COLLECT THE THEN-APPLICABLE MEMBERSHIP FEE AND ANY TAXES, USING ANY ELIGIBLE PAYMENT METHOD WE HAVE ON RECORD FOR YOU.
That’s a problem not only for customers who have a debit card associated with their account, like Laura, but anyone who has any card that they want to manage charges to. Many Amazon customers have business or corporate cards tied to their personal accounts for occasional purchases, for example; having personal charges suddenly hit a work card would go very poorly for many of those consumers.
Other customers may be carefully managing balances across cards, using specific cards for specific purposes or rewards, or may even have other family members’ cards on their account if they are part of a household. In all those cases, and others, finding a hundred-dollar charge suddenly hitting a card you never attached the subscription could cause a whole cascade of unwanted problems.
More Than Just Prime
We asked Amazon when this policy went into place and what other services among the Amazon family of companies use it. We also asked if consumers have a way to set certain cards as opted out or “do not charge.” Amazon did not respond to our inquiries (we will update if they do), so we went digging in all the terms we could think of ourselves.
In addition to the Prime Terms and Conditions (time-stamped Aug. 10, 2016), we went and found the “using any credit card we have on record for you” language in the terms of:
- Amazon Music (updated Apr. 12, 2016)
- Kindle Unlimited (updated Jan. 15, 2016)
- Audible (updated June 7, 2016)
- Subscribe & Save (no date given)
- Amazon Cloud Drive (updated Jan. 18, 2016)
- Device purchase monthly payments (no date given)
So let this be a public service announcement: Amazon can and will charge any card it has on file for you if the card you designate as a payment method falls through. Now is probably a really great time to go through your account settings to clean out cards you don’t want that happening to… and make sure any of your payment data with subscriptions attached is up to date.