Unprotected From Antivirus Vendors' Autorenewals

Symantec has long had the biggest slice of the antivirus market, but one area in which McAfee has been the clear leader is in the number of customer gripes generated by its automatic subscription renewals. But I'm beginning to see signs that Symantec is closing even that gap.

McAfee's great innovation in this regard was the idea of burying its automatic renewal clause deep in the sneakwrap terms of it

Symantec has long had the biggest slice of the antivirus market, but one area in which McAfee has been the clear leader is in the number of customer gripes generated by its automatic subscription renewals. But I'm beginning to see signs that Symantec is closing even that gap.

McAfee's great innovation in this regard was the idea of burying its automatic renewal clause deep in the sneakwrap terms of its EULA. So for many years, readers have been upset to discover that McAfee keeps billing their credit cards even when they don't wish to re-subscribe. "This just happened to me," one reader wrote recently. "The credit card had expired, but McAfee just changed the date and debited my account anyway. They told me if I wanted to cancel I could just change the credit card information in the 'My Account' section online, but it won't let you take information off, it will only let you replace it with another credit card. Is this legal? Can they really change or update your card info? Doesn't this somehow violate your privacy rights? I feel like I have been raped or my home was broken into."

Officially, the policy for McAfee's evergreen renewal (which it now cynically calls "Always On Protection") is that customers have 60 days after the renewal to cancel and get their money back. But it rarely seems to work out quite that easily. "There's still an endless loop of bad links and no help," noted another reader recently. "McAfee has purposely designed their web site to thwart cancellations. I am outraged. Many 'help' links simply lead back to the homepage instead of the topics lists, and there appears to be no possible method for either cancellation of the auto renewal OR the refund for that auto renewal as promised in the auto renewal e-mail message. I will never, ever place another order, business or personal, for any product from this company."

McAfee also makes it difficult to cancel subscription autorenewal by constantly switching the phone number that customers are supposed to call. Another reader recently discovered her McAfee subscription had been automatically renewed and set about trying to cancel. "I immediately went to the given site to get the charge off my credit card, but they are 'performing maintenance.' Right! Tomorrow I am reporting them to the BBB and calling my credit card company."

I passed on to the reader the toll free that used to be listed in McAfee's EULA as the proper number to call to cancel the autorenewal. "Thank you so very much for your quick reply and help," she wrote back the next day. "Not only did I e-mail you last evening, but I also sat online with customer service for 15 minutes to have a live chat. Not one bit of help there. Then I e-mailed customer service. Sent 7 emails before one actually went through! I received your email today and called customer service. The number you gave me gets to customer service but lets me know to try again later. I called customer service with the number provided on the McAfee site, 1-408-992-8599, and waited 28 minutes for someone to get to me. They kindly helped me and removed me from the automatic renewal list. They also will be crediting my charge card in seven to ten business days, even though it only takes them 15 seconds to charge it."

I guess it was inevitable that Symantec would grow envious of McAfee's "Always On Protection" of its revenue stream, and just as inevitable I would start to get complaints about the Symantec's autorenewal. "I got a notice from Symantec that my subscription to their anti-virus/web security product was automatically renewed last night and they charged my credit card. I am sure that somewhere in the maze of their renewal a year ago there was some 'click through' approval of this that I missed. But I would have appreciated some advance notification that allowed me to opt out. The confirmation e-mail told me to go to customer service to get a refund. Hah! Try finding a phone number there! I've sent an email request and we'll see how long it takes to get a response. There aughtta be a law!"

That reader found it relatively easy to get Symantec to agree to refund his money -- obviously, Symantec still has more work to do if it wants to match the daunting complexity of McAfee's system -- but in the process he also discovered that he had two Norton versions on his computer that were set to autorenew as well. "Even though I had stopped using Symantec products well over a year ago, it seems like every Norton product I ever had was going to keep charging me. In addition, my credit card is still registered to my Symantec account and I cannot remove it on my own. Another request to Symantec is required for each of these. Defaulting auto-renewals should be illegal. Reminding consumers prior to the charge being made should be a common courtesy. Symantec is now on my 'do not buy / do not recommend' list."

The argument made by antivirus companies for autorenewal is of course that it's for the customer's protection that one's subscription not inadvertently lapse. It's no different, they say, than your ISP or your cable company automatically charging your card every month. "That's a bogus argument," wrote a reader who, having fled McAfee years before in part because of its autorenewal practices, was very disturbed to find Symantec adopting the same approach. "Legitimate automatic renewals are opt in - you explictily agree to set up the money to be automatically deducted each month. These companies are making you opt out, and they're hiding what they're doing in the fine print in the hopes you don't notice the charges. They should be required to have my explicit permission to set up my account for automatic renewal rather than sneaking it past me in a EULA."

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