ECA members cry foul over auto-renewal cancellation hassles [update: Halpin responds]

In an attempt to bolster its ranks with thrifty members of the gaming community, the Entertainment Consumers Association recently partnered with a few online retailers to offer its members some nice deals on video games, including a pretty sweet discount on purchases from Amazon. To accompany these offers, the ECA had its own spectacular deal: One free year of membership, which would normally cost $19.99. All applicants had to do was provide their credit card information, sign up and enjoy the discounts that were being passed along to ECA members.

Sadly, this is where the idyllic tale begins to go south. Shortly after the ECA began offering the free year of membership, the Amazon offer mysteriously disappeared. This drew the ire of the group's new members, but would be quickly forgotten when the option to cancel the auto-renewal of the membership fee, through the ECA's website, also vanished without a trace. An ECA forum moderator explained the option only appeared "for some browsers, but it wasn't intended to be there, wasn't a working option and was removed as soon as we became aware."

Now, users who were drawn in by these discounts can only cancel their memberships (and subsequent annual $20 fees) by sending a letter directly to the ECA's accounting department (the address is posted after the jump). What's worse, those who canceled their auto-renewal plans with the temporarily available online option could still be locked into the annual fee, if the moderator's claim that it "wasn't a working option" is accurate. We've contacted the ECA to find out if anything is being done to inform these honorable, due-paying members that they're still, you know, due-paying members.

Update: ECA president Hal Halpin issued a statement in response to the complaints, the full transcript for which can be found after the jump. He explains that the Amazon deal was taken down due to an exploit the ECA's new members found within the offer. He adds that simultaneously, the ECA updated its site as part of a "long planned for Content Management System upgrade," at which point they found a non-functioning feature which "looked to give some members the option to opt-out of the association." The option, which Halpin claims was never functional, was quickly removed.

[Thanks to everyone who sent this in!]
To cancel the ECA auto-renewing membership fee payment, mail a written request to:

Attn: Accounting
ECA
64 Danbury Road, Suite 700
Wilton, CT 06897-4406

ECA president Hal Halpin's response:

We were disheartened to read some of the coverage and comments related to complaints regarding our member cancellation policies this morning. The issue seems to have begun following a guest article that I penned a few months ago, where I highlighted the various policy issues that gamers should be aware of – from Net Neutrality and Universal Broadband to Digital Rights Management (DRM) and End User License Agreements (EULAs). I concluded the piece by providing those who had taken the time to diligently read the article with a coupon code, encouraging them to sign up for a free trial membership... the logic being that we'd like to have readers who care about the issues among our ranks. For about four weeks following the publishing, we had a small bump in new member acquisition, but they were not coming from the article, unfortunately. These new members were coming from websites and forums that were solely promoting the coupon code, sans important reading.

Within a relatively short period of time, some of the new members found an exploit in one of our partners' promotional codes and spread the word. The partner tried to resolve the situation, during which time we removed any references to the program, but ultimately it was decided that the offer be terminated. We advised members as soon as we were aware and reassured them that we were working on additional offers with new partners. We updated our website during the same timeframe in a long planned for Content Management System upgrade and an inactive back-end feature became visible, which looked to give some members the option to opt-out of the association. We were alerted to the error and removed the non-functioning feature immediately. Because it was viewable and then removed, those same few members became concerned that it was a feature that had been live all along and was suddenly removed. We then attempted to explain the situation and allay their concerns.

There were then concerns about the auto-renew structure of our payment system and business model related to that same function. We explained that we are working on ramping up infrastructure to become more automated going forward, but due to a small but active number of members who were repeatedly joining, leaving and re-joining the organization – in an effort to exploit our member benefits and unduly take advantage of our partners' generous offers – we would require a mailed letter, as per our membership agreement. Needless to say, that incensed the exploiters who then contacted the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and their personal banks to report that we attained their membership under fraudulent conditions, in effect committing fraud themselves. Upon investigating the opened investigations, the respective banks and BBB all found ECA to be soundly reputable. We understand that several of the banks have since opened fraud investigations into their customers and that they take such matters very seriously.

Over the past few years, membership in the ECA has grown substantially, the primary reason for which is directly attributable to the important work done by the association, partnerships formed with coalitions, parallel trade associations and corporations, all eager to help defend the rights of game consumers. We have added many valuable benefits for members including discounts on games-related goods and services, purchases and rentals and a whole host of additional affinity benefits. We have several retail partners who offer significant promotions and several more, which are in the process of being finalized. It is important to note that the number of members who were/are involved in this unfortunate issue is very small and not representative of the organization as a whole. We sincerely thank the dedicated ECA members and the gaming community for their understanding and support on this matter and we look forward to continuing to grow the organization to suit the needs of the consumers.

Hal Halpin – ECA President

This article was originally published on Joystiq.