How to meet people or broaden your social circle when you’re new in town? It’s the age old question for expats and foreigners who arrive in a city not knowing a soul. In Hanoi, where I was new in town, I turned to InterNations, which, I must admit, I had never heard of before I landed in Vietnam. I found out about the organisation via an acquaintance of an acquaintance — the usual channels — who invited me to an event.
For those of you who know nothing about InterNations, it purports to be (according to the rich snippet when you do a Google search):
The leading network & guide for expats in 420 cities worldwide. Connect with fellow expatriates at top events and receive tips & advice on expat life.
To be fair: I did connect with fellow expatriates and I did go to a few top events. Tips and advice on expat life: not so much. But that’s neither here or there. Leading network and guide? Subjective, but could be true, depending on how you measure “leading”.
Interestingly, on their About Us page, InterNations has information about dispute resolution:
The European Commission provides an internet platform for online dispute resolution (so-called “OS-platform”). This OS-platform serves as a contact point for the out-of-court settlement of disputes pertaining to the contractual obligations arising from online sales contracts.
Hmmm. Why would that be a necessary inclusion on an About Page, I wonder?
Strings with your membership?
InterNations was founded in 2007 and is based in Germany. It works on a subscription/paywall model: you can open an account and message people BUT you can’t join groups or forums AND you have limited access to important information like event location AND you pay an expensive event entry fee UNLESS you upgrade to Albatross. I get it. They want to make money, and one way is to make people pay for access.
Basic membership didn’t give me the benefits I needed (coincidence? I think not), so I upgraded to Albatross. The upgrade was under US$60 (but with the exchange rate at the time, worked out to almost AU$100) but I figured it was worth it and I paid via PayPal (which saved my bacon).
I didn’t use my membership much in 2019, apart from a photography group excursion or two, and I went to one networking event, so I made a note to cancel it before it was due. I knew the auto renew thing was problematic (I’d read about it here and here and here), but I didn’t know how problematic it was until a) it happened to me and b) I challenged it.
Fast forward to the pandemic
With so much going on with the Stupid Fucking Virus™, I completely forgot to cancel my membership, and I didn’t realise I’d been charged until a notification from PayPal arrived in my inbox. Say, what? Where was the email reminder? Where was the “now due” invoice that is the hallmark of good business? Turns out InterNations don’t send them.
To be clear: InterNations do email me newsletters, surveys, event notifications, messages from the groups I’ve joined and from people who want to connect with me, and ridiculous “twinkles” from men mistakenly thinking Internations is OKCupid, but an invoice telling me my payment is due? Ah, no. To get your invoice — that’s if you even remember it’s due — you have to login to their website, go to a very well hidden spot on your Membership page and download it. For emphasis: you have log into their website (not the app) and download the invoice. They don’t email it to you.
So I challenged them. I gave InterNations every opportunity to refund me my membership fee, citing the pandemic and my imminent return to Australia. Both true. They refused.
And that’s when then the fun started, because in the meantime, I’d lodged a transaction dispute with PayPal.
Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with a business model offering tiered subscription levels and paywalls and shoring up their cash flow via auto-renewal. But what’s not cool — and is, as it turns out, illegal in Australia, the European Union and many states in America — is not advising people via an invoice or notification or similar, that the amount is about to be deducted and giving people the opportunity to cancel or opt out or downgrade. It’s illegal because it’s an unfair and unethical business practice.
Regulators remain concerned that these automatic renewals can be misused by online retailers, publications and service providers, who may not always provide consumers with adequate disclosures or provide an easy mechanism to cancel their subscriptions before being charged again.
These laws [in the US] require businesses to restructure the way their current automatic renewal processes work. Businesses must take into account the additional consent requirements and update their systems so that customers are not automatically billed until the business receives all the opt ins required to process the transaction.
InterNations did not do this. There was no advice. There was no informed consent. There was no opportunity to cancel. What they did do, in all my correspondence with them, was refer me to the terms and conditions (T&Cs) I “agreed” to when I subscribed to the upgraded membership, and offer to put my subscription on hold. They did not offer me a refund, even though I requested one.
I pointed out the illegality of what they were doing in several emails (and on social media). They pointed out that I had agreed to their T&Cs when I upgraded. They wouldn’t budge. And neither did I.
PayPal to the rescue
After to-ing and fro-ing with InterNations for a week about wanting a refund, PayPal got back to me, emailing me to let me know they’d found in my favour, and a refund would be forthcoming.
That’s a big FUCK YOU, InterNations (which is exactly what I wrote in my final email to them).
This is a win for more than one reason:
- Despite InterNations saying they wouldn’t give me a refund, PayPal decided it was enough of a legal issue that they would.
- As it turns out, InterNations quoting their T&Cs ad infinitum meant nothing because PayPal deemed it was irrelevant.
- Corporate giants with unethical and illegal business practices can be taken to task by the little guy — don’t take their word for it and challenge everything.
- The corporate giants hope that you’ll give up or not bother pursuing a refund because the amount is too small, but I’m here to tell you that persistence and tenacity pays off.
- Fighting for a principle is important — now more than ever.