Using ShopSafe to avoid being auto-billed by SaaS trials (that you forget to cancel)

Generating temporary, yet valid credit card numbers that will pass $1 validity checks, but will save you from paying for services you don’t want.

The Problem

Many companies offer “free” trials — usually 7, 14, or 30 days — so that you can test out their product before purchasing it. I put free in quotes as there’s almost always a catch: before determining if their features and functionality suit your needs, you’re asked to provide a credit card.

Ostensibly, this request is so that you experience “zero downtime” after the trial ends, but in reality companies bank on the fact that you’ll forget to cancel the trial. While in some cases, you can complain and they’ll refund the charges, the less reputable ones have little sympathy and you’re out whatever they decide to charge you. (And with more and more SaaS companies moving to annual billing without negative conversion consequences, you could get charged for a full 12 months of a product you have no interest in using.)

Obviously it’s not great business plan for them to hold you prisoner — Jason M. Lemkin has written extensively on the topic — or try to fleece you for some period of service you don’t want, many do and potential customers should have a way to protect themselves. Below is one way you can do this.

One Solution

Having “inherited” a Bank of America account — I grew up banking with BayBank in Boston and went through what can only be described as a lovely and error free experience as they (i) merged with Bank of Boston in 1996, (ii) were acquired by Fleet Bank in 1999, and (iii) were again acquired by BofA in 2005 — my example uses their website. However, most major banking institutions should have a similar service.

  1. After logging in and clicking through to the overview of your credit card activity, click on the “Information & Services” tab.

2. Scroll all the way down to the Features section and click “Use ShopSafe”.

3. After the ShopSafe modal pops up, click on “Create a New ShopSafe Number”, confirm the 3-digit security code on the back of your credit card, and click Continue.

4. After your CVV number is confirmed, you will be asked to “Set your limits” for this new ShopSafe number. The number of months input box will default to 2 — minimum # of months card can be active for — while the spending amount box will be blank. Enter “1” in this box and click Continue.

5. After some entirely unnecessary Adobe Flash animation simulating random number generation, you’ll be presented with a brand new credit card number, expiration date, and security code.

6. With your newly minted card in hand, switch back over to the SaaS product you wish to demo — my favorite place to use this is with LinkedIn Premium trials — and enter the card details. The software vendor will typically attempt to charge (and later refund) one dollar ($1) to this card, to verify that they’ll actually be able to bill it when your trial expires. If you’re allowed to begin using the product, you know that the charge was successful.

7. At this point, just to be safe, you may want to go back to ShopSafe and cancel the card. (While I’ve never had a vendor successfully bill me over the card limit, I doubt Bank of America will be that helpful if it happens based on how you’re using the service.) To cancel, simply re-launch ShopSafe — see step #2 above — click “View All Active ShopSafe Numbers”, highlight the desired card, and click “Close This Number”.

Parting Thoughts

Besides trials, you can also use this technique to prevent your service being renewed without your explicit consent. Rather than setting the monetary limit to $1 and the time limit to 2 months, simply set the former to one year’s (or whatever period) worth of service and the latter to the billing frequency (e.g., 12 months). Then, enjoy the service until renewal time and decide then, not now, if you wish to be a perpetual user.

Specifically, I’ve used this variation of the technique to prevent companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple from renewing annual subscriptions for products that I find myself no longer using after a few months. If you decide after the 12 month period expires, they’ll be sure to let you know via email, SMS, etc. Trust me, you’ll have every opportunity to correct your billing details. (There are even entire companies dedicated to recovering accounts from failed billing attempts — typically due to expired cards — though I can’t recall any of their names at this time.)

Hope this post was useful; do let me know in the comments if you have any other tips (or have thoughts on the morality of using it). This is my first post on Medium —expect subsequent ones to be more technical — and I’m using it as a de facto trial of the product. Fortunately, it’s free of charge!

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