Switching Your Credit Card May Not Stop a Streaming Service’s Recurring Charges–DGU

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Millions of Americans pay for streaming services, doling out anywhere from $5 to $75 a month. It’s a common belief that you can get out of recurring charges like this by switching your credit card. The streamers won’t be able to find you, and your account will just go away, right? You wouldn’t be crazy for believing it, but it’s a myth that switching a credit card will definitely stop your recurring charges.

Nearly 46% of Americans opened a new credit card last year, according to Forbes, which means millions of Americans also canceled old ones. When you switch cards, these streaming services don’t just stop your service — they just start charging your new card. Granted, it might be easier to just cancel your subscription directly with a streamer like Netflix. There’s a largely hidden service that enables most subscription services to keep throwing charges at you indefinitely.

“Banks may automatically update credit or debit card numbers when a new card is issued. This update allows your card to continue to be charged, even if it’s expired,” Netflix says in its help center, though it’s not alone in this feature.

Most major card providers offer a feature that enables this, including Visa. In 2003, Visa U.S.A. started offering a new software product to merchants called Visa Account Updater (VAU), according to a 2003 American Banker article. The service works with a network of banks to create a virtual tracking service of Americans’ financial profiles. Whenever someone renews or switches a credit card within their bank, the institution automatically updates the VAU. This system lets Netflix and countless other corporations charge whatever card you have on file. It’s a seamless switch that allows the dollars to keep flowing toward corporate America, while you don’t have to lift a finger.

“Visa understands the challenges faced by merchants when it comes to staying on top of account information changes,” Visa say in marketing materials to corporations. “VAU delivers updated cardholder account information in a timely, efficient, and cost-effective manner, benefiting all parties involved in the electronic payment process.”

VAU was an instant success, quickly adopted by banks and corporations around the world. Visa’s service follows you whenever your issuer switches between any major credit card provider, whether it’s Discover, Mastercard, or American Express. However, if you close out an account entirely, or change to a different credit card provider yourself, the VAU will simply list your account as being closed.

Some customers of Visa’s tracking service include Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Disney, according to a 256-page list of the software’s adopters from 2022. VAU allows merchants to keep customers roped into their subscription services, but Visa also argues it helps customers.

“Visa Account Updater (VAU) was built to help ease the burden on consumers of inputting a new account number and expiration date in recurring subscriptions,” said a Visa spokesperson in a statement to Gizmodo.

Visa’s not entirely wrong about this. If your electricity or internet bill is tied to your credit card, you could be in a real bind if you forget to update your new card. However, practices like these can also keep people bound in endless cycles of payments that follow them everywhere.

“The issuing bank determines whether to provide updated card information or to provide a closed account or contact cardholder advice through VAU,” said the spokesperson. “VAU only provides information to merchants at the direction of the issuing financial institution and only for merchants where the cardholder has already stored their payment credentials.”

Origins of the Myth

Before services like VAU popped up, switching your credit card was a pretty surefire way to get out of recurring charges, whether you wanted to or not. When Bank of America adopted VAU in 2003, it described the product as a solution for billing changes that had once left merchants with “unappealing choices.”

“One would be that the merchant would shut off the customer’s service,” said a Bank of America executive in a 2003 press release. “Another would be that the merchant would continue the service but send the customer a nasty letter.”

So VAU really came about with the onset of the internet. Practices like this have become increasingly popular in the Internet age. Subscription services have become easier to start, but increasingly difficult to stop. Recurring charges can truly follow you to the ends of the Earth unless you outright contact the company to stop them.

Why It’s Pervasive

Visa’s Account Updater is only really marketed to businesses, so most consumers have no idea it exists. I’d bet most people have no idea there’s a way to opt out of Visa’s credit card tracking service, and even fewer know they’re default opted in. It’s largely a hidden service to the average person, with no clear indicator from your bank or subscription service that you’re being tracked in this way.

Credit cards are also widely regarded as a more anonymous way to move through the financial world. While they typically are more secure than using a debit card, make no mistake, banks are still tracking your every move. The VAU just allows them to coordinate with corporations to keep your financial information constantly up to date.

The VAU undoubtedly offers some benefits to consumers. However, it’s important to understand why. The system reduces “churn” for corporations, and ensures you can keep paying them your dollars no matter what’s going on in your financial world. Banks make it effortless to keep paying these recurring charges. However, stopping them can be much harder. If you really want to stop a subscription, there’s still no substitute for calling up the company and canceling.

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