Judith is a California resident who, like many of us, was concerned about her online privacy and wanted to protect it. A web search led her to a company called MyLife.com. They promised to protect her privacy and reputation – for a modest fee.

Judith entered her credit card number to buy what she thought was one month’s worth of service. However, when she reviewed later credit card bills, she discovered that MyLife had charged her for a second month, without her knowledge or permission. When she tried to get her money back and stop the automatic renewals, she couldn’t. What’s more, the “service” MyLife provided didn’t do much to protect Judith’s privacy.

Judith’s story isn’t at all uncommon. In the last few years, “subscriptions” for a variety of goods and services – with automatic renewals of credit card payments – have become the norm. But often, the renewal terms are buried in a mound of fine print. Many consumers think they’re making a one-time purchase, only to find out later that the company has continued to charge their credit card every 30 days – sometimes for months, or even years – without their permission.

The practice has become so widespread that the federal government and many states (including California) have passed new laws to protect consumers.

After reviewing dozens of consumer complaints against MyLife and investigating the company, the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office, along with the L.A. County D.A., brought one of the first major cases under California’s automatic renewal law, against MyLife.com. (The company was then based in Santa Monica.)

MyLife eventually paid more than $1 million in fines and refunds to customers and was placed under a permanent court order that bars various unlawful tactics, as part of a settlement with prosecutors.

California’s automatic-renewal law requires online businesses to do all of the following things before starting consumers on automatic payments:

State the renewal terms “clearly and conspicuously,” in the same place where online payment is made. This requires text that’s bold, larger, or otherwise conspicuous so that it “clearly calls attention to the language.” The renewal terms can’t be buried in fine print!

Get the consumer’s “affirmative consent” to the automatic renewal. This is typically done by having the consumer check a box agreeing to the auto-renewal terms.

Provide the consumer with a post-payment notice that includes the offer terms and how to easily cancel. (For “free trials,” the business must also allow the consumer to cancel before any payment is made.)

If an online business signs you up for automatic credit card renewals without meeting these rules, you should call and request that they stop charging card – and refund any charges made without your express consent.

If you have problems with a business you can also contact the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission. If the company is based here in Santa Monica, you can contact the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division at (310) 458-8336 or smconsumer.org.

– Andrea Cavanaugh