Update 19 Feb 2013: We're still receiving reports online shoppers are discovering costly unwanted subscriptions. The communication used by firms has improved since we first published this story, but shoppers should still beware these 'deals' as they can hit you in the pocket.
Online shoppers have reported finding unexpected continuous payments on bank and credit card statements, apparently set up without their knowledge.
Customers buying from certain websites sometimes see a promotion or cashback offer on the order confirmation page, which offers money off their next spend from a third party.
Clicking through to this link and submitting details signs them up to a 'discount club', which then takes a monthly fee. But many say this is not made clear.
MoneySavingExpert.com forum user Lucejon writes: "I vaguely remember a pop-up window advertising more discounts after purchasing an item from a well-known bulk-buy discount website back in October.
"I believe I would have clicked 'yes' to be informed of discounts, but I am absolutely sure I would not have provided my bank account details to a company purporting to send me the latest discounts. What would be the reason to do that?"
Forum user Betheliza says: "My 17-year-old daughter had two transactions on her bank statement, both for £14.95 to Rewards First. I was furious with her at first because she didn't have a clue where the money had gone.
"I thought it was another case of teenagers being unable to manage their money. Then I Googled Rewards First."
What are the subscription schemes?
We contacted two 'discount clubs': Shopper Discounts & Rewards and Rewards First, to find out more.
Both outfits give members certain discounts or offers when shopping online. Shopper Discounts & Rewards is free for the first 30 days and £10 a month thereafter, while Rewards First is also free for the first 30 days, then costs £14.95 a month.
Neither companies confirmed which retailers' websites their subscription offers have appeared on, but forum users have reported being signed up to discount clubs following purchases from Debenhams, Flybe, Interflora, Pizza Hut, The Trainline, Ticketmaster and WH Smith, among others.
With The Trainline, for example, an inviting message greets you when buying a ticket: "Click here to claim £10 cashback on your next booking."
When you click through, it only explains the true cost in the small print.
Rewards First has, however, provided undertakings which prevent it from using unfair practices or terms which could mislead people into signing up to subscription services which carry fees.
This comes after the Office of Fair Trading took action against owner Adaptive Affinity in December 2011 to address concerns some consumers were unwittingly signed up to online subscription schemes.
Since this news story was first published, Rewards First has told us it has not had any retailer offers, or any new customers, since July 2012, though it still has existing members.
How do I know if I've joined?
If you've signed up to one of these discount programmes, you should have received emails confirming you've joined it, so it's worth checking your junk mail folder.
Also check your bank and credit card statements for monthly payments with descriptions such as "shopperdisc.co.uk" or "Rewards First", as this means you've joined their programmes.
How do I cancel?
- Shopper Discounts & Rewards. If you find you've joined inadvertently, you can contact customer services to have your membership cancelled. Webloyalty, which runs the programme, says refunds are given on a "case-by-case" basis if you didn't intend to join and haven't used the programme, so it's worth asking.
- Rewards First. Adaptive Affinity, which runs Rewards First, says it has a no-quibble cancellation policy. If you want to cancel, either within the 30-day trial period or after the expiry of the trial period, you can phone 0845 026 1091 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can contact the company on 0800 731 9935, or via email at email@example.com.
If you find the emails it has sent you, you can also cancel by logging into your online account using your membership ID and postcode and clicking cancel, though it's best to call if you want to try for a refund. Cancellation takes effect the date the request is received.
Can I get a refund?
The OFT says when cancelling, you are not entitled to a refund of payments made before you cancel.
However, companies may choose to offer refunds as a gesture of goodwill.
For example, Shopper Discounts & Rewards has a customer service policy to refund any payments to consumers who never intended to sign up, provided they didn't use it.
To get up to three months' payments back immediately, call 0800 731 9935. If your payments go back further, ask for a form to complete to get the rest back.
What are my rights?
For subscriptions bought online, consumers have the right to cancel with a full refund and no further commitments within seven working days, starting from the day after goods are received or a contract for services is concluded.
If you don't notice you have signed up for a subscription until after seven days have passed, you are likely to be bound by the company's terms.
But you can still cancel the contract as quickly as possible, within those terms.
What if the company refuses to cancel my subscription?
If the terms state you're allowed to cancel but the firm fails to end your subscription, it's easier to do if you're paying by direct debit or standing order. Simply cancel them by writing to your bank.
However, if you arranged payment by giving your credit or debit card details directly to a company, and by authorising it to take regular payments from your account, this is a continuous payment authority which is harder to cancel.
You must tell the company taking the payments, preferably in writing, and give a copy of this to your bank or card issuer.
If the company is not contactable or the website has disappeared, your bank or card issuer should still stop future payments.
Also, if you think you have unintentionally signed up to a subscription, or that any cancellation terms are unreasonable, you should report this to the OFT or Trading Standards by calling the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0845 404 0506.
MoneySavingExpert.com campaigns co-ordinator Wendy Alcock says: "Consumers should always be wary of entering their card details online for what appears to be a free trial, especially if they've clicked through from a different site.
"Anyone that's trying to get out of a continuous, or recurring, payment should first contact the company taking payment. If they continue to take money, get in touch with your card provider.
"Since November 2009, the Payment Services Regulations mean un-cancelled payments can be stopped by your bank."
What the companies say
A spokesperson for Rewards First says: "Adaptive Affinity has never knowingly misled consumers. Everyone who signs up to its products has to follow a procedure (ie, enter their credit card details and agrees to the terms of membership). Without taking these positive steps, a customer would not become a member of the programme.
"Adaptive Affinity continually reviews its marketing and creative materials to ensure compliance with all regulatory requirements. Those members that have any concerns are asked to contact us in writing and we shall address each member's concern on a case by case basis."
A spokesperson for Shopper Discounts & Rewards says: "Consumers are offered the opportunity to join after making a purchase at one of our retail or travel client websites.
"Anyone joining Shopper Discounts & Rewards will go through a number of affirmative steps to do so, including entering their email address, providing credit or debit card details and creating and verifying a password.
"Once they have joined, we regularly email members encouraging them to make the most of their membership.
"We make it easy for members to contact us should they have any queries about the programme or if they'd like to cancel their membership, which they can do at any time during or after their free trial period."