Online education company under fire after some allege they paid for ‘free’ trial

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WATCH ABOVE: An online education company is facing scrutiny after multiple reports that people were charged for services despite customers cancelling before the end of a free trial. Tomasia DaSilva reports. – Jan 25, 2021

A privately-owned, online education organization is facing a lot of backlash and complaints from former clients, including a Calgary student.

Frankie Hart decided to take a semester off from her studies at the University of Calgary. She still wanted to keep learning, however, so she decided to look at other options.

“I thought maybe a free trial of some free classes,” she said. “Just like classes online.”

Hart said Shaw Academy LLC popped up on her social media feed. The company, which was founded in Dublin, Ireland in 2013, provides pre-recorded online courses.

It also offers a free four-week trial. Hart said it was a perfect fit until she came across some reviews on different forums online.

“There’s a lot of people that are really angry and have had multiple charges for materials that they didn’t buy,” she said. “Courses that they cancelled their free trials to.”

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Calgary student warns about free online trial. Global News

Hart said she also tried to cancel online, but noted the process was difficult.

“You have to find a part of your membership to cancel the subscription,” she said. “Then you have to find the link to continue to cancel it about four more times after that, and then it says you have to call them.”

Hart said every time she tried to call, she couldn’t get through. When she finally did, she said she was offered promises that she couldn’t believe after all she had read.

“I thought I might as well just cancel my credit card and not risk it,” Hart said.

Read more: Public warned of online ‘free trial’ scams during coronavirus pandemic

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Complaints filed against Shaw Academy

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) told Global News it has received 23 reports about the academy since September 2018.

“Based on the reporting we’re seeing is that people are signing up for a free trial offer for 30 days, they’re trying to cancel within that 30 days, and they continue to be charged even though they tried to cancel,” said Jeff Thomson of the CAFC.

“So certainly has the illusion of false, deceptive and misleading marketing.”

The Better Business Bureau in Nashua, N.H., where Shaw Academy also has a location listed on its website, has also seen hundreds of complaints — upwards of 3,500.

The BBB issued an alert about the business.

“BBB files indicate that Shaw Academy, LLC has a pattern of complaints alleging that their business does not honour cancellation requests from its consumers and charges them membership fees after all proper steps to cancel membership are followed,” the alert says.

“Complaints also allege that, when attempting to cancel their membership, consumers do not receive confirmation from the business.

“Finally, consumers indicate that they are misled and deceived into purchasing “add-ons” to their membership.”

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The BBB also posted Shaw Academy’s response that it had made significant progress towards being “fully resourced” and “is now able to respond to all customer queries within 24 hours after being shortstaffed due to COVID-19.”

It added it had also taken a number of corrective measures as a result of feedback received from students.

Global News reached out multiple times to Shaw Academy and asked to speak to someone in a management or leadership position.

We received an email response from the support team which read, in part: “We are known for taking ownership and caring deeply about our students.”

“I agree there were (a) few mistakes from our end, and we cannot change the past, but you have our word to improve the way our team serves every student.”

One day after this article was published, officials from Shaw Academy sent an additional statement to Global News saying there have been “legacy and COVID impacted issues” the company is looking to improve around subscription renewal.

“Shaw Academy upon receiving feedback from its students has worked hard to improve its cancellation process,” Shaw Academy’s chief strategy officer John White said in a statement, adding that there has been a drop in customer service tickets since the changes came into place.

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He also said that Hart’s complaint was received, and that she was not charged in the end.

Read more: Calgary businessman raises concerns about e-transfer fraud after money disappears

Free trial offers

The CAFC told Global News that while this “free trial” complaint has a bit of a twist, so-called “subscription traps” or “continuity schemes” are common.

Thomson said it’s important consumers always read the fine print.

“Anytime you’re buying or subscribing to something online — whether it is a product or a service — really read the terms of service, that agreement that you’re accepting,” he said.

“Was there a term of service? What did that term of service say?”

If you’ve met all of the terms of service, and the company still charges you, Thomson said you can challenge the charge with your credit card or bank.

Hart didn’t want to chance any charges, so she cancelled her credit card outright.

She’s not out any money, but added she has learned an important lesson.

“You just have to be cautious,” she advised. “More cautious than I was.”