Back in November several shopping portals started running promotions offering bonus points if you signed up for an 8-week digital trial subscription to the Wall Street Journal and Barron's. The terms were a bit tricky: you had to keep the subscription for 45 days, but if you kept it for 56 days (8 weeks) you'd be charged for another month. That created a small window (which we're currently in) where you can cancel your subscription, keep the points, and not be charged for another month.
The points haul wasn't huge, but my purchases did track, and each batch cost me $1.06 after taxes, which I thought was a pretty good deal.
Dow Jones subscriptions are not meant to be cancelled
The Wall Street Journal and Barron's are both Dow Jones publications, and while you can manage your subscription online, you cannot cancel your subscription online. You need to call 1-800-JOURNAL for the Wall Street Journal or 1-800-544-0422 for Barron's, although in practice it seems the agents at either number can manage subscriptions to the other.
The Wall Street Journal call center combines the absolute worst elements of the call center experience: the lengthy script begging you not to cancel ("your subscription is paid up through the 27th, you can cancel until then, are you sure you want to cancel now?"), the terrible connection, the language barrier.
I was ultimately able to successfully cancel one subscription that way with a phone call that lasted 19 minutes, although it felt much longer. On Sunday I mustered up the resolve to make another round of calls, which is when I discovered the call center isn't open on Sundays.
That was the last straw for me.
Citi and Bank of America still offer disposable virtual credit card numbers
Virtual credit card numbers are a fairly old gimmick introduced by a few banks in the early days of online retail so that customers wouldn't have to share their "real" credit card number with online merchants. I don't know if they were ever "popular," but now they're distinctly unpopular, with to the best of my knowledge Bank of America and Citi being the only remaining card issuers that allow you to generate single-use credit card numbers for online transactions (let me and fellow readers know if the comments if you know of any other issuers).
To access virtual credit cards in Citi online banking open any card, then click on "Get Virtual Account Number" in the righthand pane. To access them in Bank of America, navigate to your account activity, scroll all the way down, and look for "Use ShopSafe."
Both banks appear to use the same technology, and I want to stress again, it is old. But it still works, and you can still generate disposable credit card numbers with customized spending limits and expiration dates. These numbers can only be used online.
Use virtual credit card numbers to auto-cancel subscriptions
The $0 liability offered by virtually all credit cards today on unauthorized charges has made the original purpose of virtual credit cards fairly remote from the modern experience. While you should still review your credit card activity carefully for unauthorized charges, it's trivially easy to get such charges reversed (some merchants would say too easy!).
But when you're dealing with sketchy merchants like Dow Jones and their outsourced call center, virtual credit card numbers offer a commonsense way to make sure you're not charged for subscriptions you don't want. Just change your billing method to a virtual credit card with a low limit and early expiration date, and your subscription will cancel itself.
Is this right?
I'm not a priest or a lawyer, and I'm especially not your priest or lawyer, so I don't have any insight into whether giving a sketchy merchant a credit card number you know (but they don't know) they won't be able to charge is legal or ethical or whatever.
I know it wouldn't be my first choice, which is why I tried to cancel my subscriptions the "right way." But when I realized I was not being dealt with in good faith, I no longer felt any compulsion to deal in good faith with them.
But even if you decide not to use virtual credit card numbers in this way, remember that Citi and Bank of America credit cardholders still have this potentially useful tool at their disposal.