Generally I write a review because I’ve been asked to. This time I’m writing because I’m annoyed; I want other people avoid the same pitfalls that we fell into.
TL:DR version: my kids were bored, it’s a lot of busy work, and they charged my credit card without warning or permission.
About ABC Mouse
ABC Mouse is an online program and app for young children. They bill themselves as a “full online curriculum for children ages 2– 8,” and they list reading, math, science, art, and colors as subjects on their website. They recently added a second grade level of material, so they add content regularly. They use a subscription model, with frequent deals for the first month, or on the yearly membership. The app offers learning videos, e-books, puzzles, games, and various worksheet-type activities. As the children complete activities they earn tickets, which they trade in for in-game items. The Engineer loved his hamster cage and built a massive maze of tunnels for the hamsters to enjoy.
Lots of schools use ABC Mouse in their classrooms, and we’ve seen it at the library. It was the first thing that I thought of when we decided to start homeschooling, because I couldn’t go wrong if real teachers used it, right?
We started our subscription last January. Initially the kids were super excited. I put the app on their tablets, and they would spend quiet time watching the videos, reading the e-books, and moving hamster tunnels around. We had started “officially” homeschooling around the same time. I felt happier that the kids were spending time learning, and it was a nice buffer into homeschooling while it lasted.
The kids got bored. They pleaded to not do their Learning Path with the customized education level activities. All they wanted to do was watch the videos and play with the hamster. I didn’t realize that I had plopped them into a busy work environment. The Engineer’s coloring activities on the Learning Path were so basic that at first I thought I had messed up the settings. All he had to do was click once on the coloring sheet, and it would give him credit to move on. He enjoyed the games, but they were tedious too: pop all the bubbles with the letter B. Now, pop all the bubbles with the letter C. Let’s pop all the leftover bubbles with the letter D. Yay bubbles!
The Engineer did have fun with the puzzles once I pointed out that he got more tickets for raising the difficulty level. He had a little difficulty at level 9 where you have to rotate the pieces to make them fit. He did just fine at level 8 (instead of the level 4 or 5 for his age range.)
An unpleasant surprise
I decided to let the subscription lapse. I actually forgot when we signed up, and thought we had until June. Imagine my surprise when Mr. Genius asked why there was a $60 charge on the credit card from ABC Mouse. What? A charge? I didn’t authorize that!
First I went to the account settings on the app. There was no way to opt-out of auto subscription. No option to remove my credit card information. There was no message about our account auto-subscribing, and did we want to continue. Nothing. No emails, no alerts, no communication.
So I searched for a phone number. Nothing there either, just a comment submission form. I had to do a web search to find a number to call (it’s 800-633-3331, by the way.)
When I worked my way through the phone tree to the billing department, there was an automated response and then it hung up. I ended up going to the tech support line and waiting for 35 minutes before someone finally picked up.
ABC Mouse customer service stated there is a strict no-refund policy, and that the auto-subscribe information is listed on the subscription page as well as the Terms of Service. I checked the TOS and it’s listed, but it’s a buried byline in a mass of text. Neither I or a friend who subscribed remember the auto-subscribe showing on the subscription page. We’re both cautious individuals who actually read the TOS before we click accept, so if we didn’t see it, then it’s not clear and evident.
When I stated I was going to dispute the charge with my credit card company, they offered me a pro-rated refund, despite the fact that the charge just went through. I talked to a manager (who was in a “meeting” right up until I mentioned that this was an illegal practice) who stoicly repeated the policy: no refunds.
The credit card company finalized the dispute in our favor in less than 5 hours. Done deal.
At best, this is a shady business practice designed to con people into paying more. At worst, this is illegal. They have to clearly state the terms, not bury them in the TOS. When we set up the dispute with the credit card company, one of the questions asked if the information for billing was clearly stated and separate from the rest of the TOS. That’s pretty strict criteria.
After posting about this on a homeschooling site, I’ve had numerous people confirm the same thing happened to them. Worse, many of them said that after they cancelled, ABC Mouse kept charging their card. A few said they had to resort to reporting their card as lost for the charges to stop. One even mentioned that ABC Mouse countered the dispute, claiming that the customer used the account and should be charged.
I was also informed that ABC Mouse is affiliated with the Church of Scientology. The parent company of ABC Mouse, Age of Learning, is owned by Doug Dorhing, an active scientologist. Because ABC Mouse and the official Scientology website are linked somehow by their IP, that report seems to be true. (yes, I checked. I don’t post hear-say unless I verify it first.)
If you chose to use ABC Mouse, know that you need to cancel your account before the end of the subscription. The account information states that canceling will give you access up until the end date, so I suggest canceling right after you sign up. Also note this fine print: “For existing subscribers, we may change your fee at any time in our sole discretion at the end of your subscription period, provided that we first notify you by email.”
In hindsight, I should have gone through the TOS with a fine-toothed comb. That’s my responsibility, and I guess I missed it when I read through it (the effective date on the current TOS is after we signed up, so it might not have been listed.) Anything involving money should be clearly stated and highly visible so that frazzled moms like me don’t miss it.