Why Is It So Hard to Quit Proactiv?S

Proactiv, the self-proclaimed ''best-selling acne system in America," enlists A-list celebs like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry to shill its Renewing Cleansers and Revitalizing Toners to millions of people every year. Pimple-free Proactiv converts swear up and down by it, but perhaps the product's infallibility can be chalked up to a clinching contract rather than miracle potions; numerous pissed off Proactiv customers say it's next to impossible to cancel the company's acne treatment shipments. Is Proactiv's continuity program purposefully predatory, or is it just disorganized?

"Go in without me," my friend Serena told me one weekend in December, gesturing me into the restaurant we were about to enter. "I need to call Proactiv again." She looked anxious as she checked her account balance on her phone. "They keep charging me for products I didn't receive and never wanted in the first place and I don't know how to stop it."

Serena's saga started when she ordered one box of the Proactiv 3-Step System in May 2012 but was mistakenly charged for two. When she called the company to get a refund for the second order and cancel all further shipments, a customer service representative confirmed the cancellation and sent her an affidavit in the mail to sign and return for the refund, which she did.

But last month, after Serena had recently moved to Philadelphia, she saw a mysterious $50 charge on her bank statement. It turned out that, despite confirming her request on the phone, Proactiv had never actually canceled her account and instead placed it on a six month hold: the $50 was for a new shipment which they had sent to her old apartment in San Francisco. A sales rep told Serena that Proactiv had never received her affidavit and therefore had not refunded her for the original erroneous order. They said they were unable to send her a new affidavit, but they could refund the most recent package if they got it back. When Serena explained how that would be difficult since she no longer lived in San Francisco, the rep said it was still Serena's responsibility to contact the new residents at her old address and have them return the Proactiv shipment themselves.

The package never arrived, Serena's account was still charged, and things devolved from there. Serena called again to cancel her account and demand her money back — this was getting ridiculous, especially because she was between jobs and really needed that money in her account —and was told to fill out a new affidavit to complete the cancellation process. Soon after, she received another $30 charge. She called again, and was told to fill out another affidavit. She asked to speak to a manager and was told someone would call her back within 72 hours; no one did. Finally, Serena canceled her debit card.

"Trying to stop them from funneling money out of my account has taken up time and energy that I don't have," Serena said. "Like many of their customers, I'm young and broke and inexperienced, and it's clear that they exploit that."

Google "Proactiv scam" and you'll see that Serena's experience is commonplace, to a shockingly specific degree. There are dozens of websites dedicated to documenting Proactiv-related consumer advocacy issues, and over 200 negative complaints and reviews of Proactiv on consumeraffairs.com, almost all of which reference misleading (and rude) customer service representatives, unsolicited deliveries, and false cancellations. Here's a selection of complaints from the past three months:

I ordered Proactive a few months before my sister's wedding wanting to get my skin looking good for the wedding. For three months I did nothing but battle to get my shipments. First, they sent them to an address I had not lived at for 3 years and I had never given to them. Then they didn't have the items in stock. This went on and on and I finally decided to cancel. They assured me it was cancelled then three months later I get a charge. I called them to see what was going on. Someone had not cancelled my purchase correctly and this caused the shipments to commence. In the meantime, I had moved, they told me I had to return the items for a refund. Well, I never got them. They said to wait 15 days. Still, I never got them and I got another charge in the meantime. This is still an ongoing battle for me and every time I call, they refuse to help. I am filing a dispute with my credit card and hopefully they can do something about this!

Proactiv is a good product. This review is not about the product but the customer service, which is horrible. If I can give it zero stars, I would. When ordering with Guthy Renker (the distributors of Proactiv), you are automatically signed up for the club membership and they will deliver more products to your house and charge your credit card. You cannot cancel the automatic membership online; you only get to choose how often they do the deliveries. The only way to cancel is to call and I had to call three times and got charged for another delivery before it was completely cancelled. They are rude on the phone and treat you as if you are an idiot when you complain about being charged. I would rather buy Proactiv from Amazon and get charged a bit more money than to ever order from the website. I'm out $108 because of their dishonest business practices.

OMG, I wish that I had checked this site before I ordered. Believe me, I first ordered this stuff in December or January for my grandson. This whole time we have received one shipment and that was after numerous phone calls and having to sign an affidavit that the package had not been delivered. Finally, I received one shipment in about February or March, but they are still continuing to snatch money from my account. I have cancelled two times already. Even with a confirmation number that I wanted nothing else from them, they were once again in my account on Sept. 10. I tell everyone I come in contact with to stay away from them.

I too ordered the nice $19.99 sample order of Proactiv and I too believe they have a wonderful product. I knew going in I would not be able to afford the monthly purchases, so I canceled my membership in 21 days (the advertisement indicated I had 30 days to cancel) and received an email indicating the same. However, in the meantime, before the 30 days were up, they had already shipped the 3-month supply. This charge caused my checking account to overdraw and a $35 fee. I also had to pay to return the product. I called my bank and requested a stop pay pending the return of the product in full and their refund of the payment taken. The saddest part is I would have bought more Proactiv had they not made me feel like they were shoving it down my throat! Not worth it!

I received a collection letter in the mail today from Proactiv for $67.84. It has been over a year since I canceled my account (which was a long drawn out process in itself, they wouldn't take no for an answer). Even after cancelling, I received two more shipments which I mailed back immediately "return to sender." I just contacted Proactiv and they said shipments were received late and that charges are expected to be paid. Yeah right, not happening! Don't fall into the trap I have.

This has by far been the worst experience of my life when it came to getting rid of something. I still have acne (which isn't the issue). My issue comes from me not wanting to continue this product but them continuing to charge my account. It has cost my savings account to be compromised since the checking is linked. I had to pick up extra shifts at work to cover these fraudulent bank charges that keep overdrawing my account. On October 3rd, 2012, I received an email notice that my account was overdrawn. I went in to check this out and the teller said it was a charge from Proactiv (that I did not authorize). I chalked it up to maybe not reading the terms and conditions. I told them to stop payment and they said I had to contact Proactiv. Here's where the issue comes. I cancelled the account and I was told to send the product back for a refund when I receive it (it has yet to arrive). It is now October 11th and yet again my account is overdrawn! I'm livid simply because I budget my money to the penny and now I'm being charged something I have yet to receive for a second time. I hold both Proactiv and my bank responsible at this point. They're both getting dropped out of my life tomorrow when I pay off this -72 dollar balance I owe my account.

Proactiv employs a continuity sales model, like Netflix or Spotify, and all continuity plans are mandated by the Federal Trade Commission's Telemarketing Sales Rule to "truthfully, clearly, and conspicuously disclose" three pieces of information:

1) the fact that the customer's account will be charged unless he or she takes an affirmative action - such as canceling - to avoid the charge;
2) the date(s) on which the charge(s) will be submitted for payment;
3) the specific steps the customer must take to avoid the charges.

Shelley Elkins, Director of Consumer Affairs at Guthy-Renker, the infomercial company that licenses and distributes Proactiv (and, according to Forbes, made around $800 million in revenue from the acne treatment in 2010), told me she thinks Proactiv is very transparent about its practices: phone representatives are instructed to mention order terms, also visible on the website, three times before making a sale. She also said that negative online reviews only constitute a small portion of the 250,000 orders they ship per week. Still, she said, Guthy-Renker cares about resolving those issues, which is why Corrie Murphy, the company's Vice President of Public Relations and Social Media, spends a significant amount of time reaching out to commenters and responding to complaints sent in via Facebook and Twitter. Both women, however, agreed that Serena's case was, in Elkins' words, "a mess."

"I am totally disheartened by it," she said. "I'm very upset. This is not the customer experience we want to foster."

Of course, Elkins said, Proactiv representatives are incentivized to keep customers from canceling shipments; the people who are best at helping retain customers are paid at a higher rate than representatives who handle more basic customer service calls. "We are not a non-profit," she said. "We want to keep our customers, and we're a good marketing company." She pointed out that most people who order Proactiv are more concerned with their acne than future payments, and may rush through the payment process as a result. "Acne is a huge issue, especially for women and girls," she said. "It's bad for your self esteem. When you call you're just like, yeah, get it out the door to me."

But both women agreed it shouldn't take a reporter to get someone like Serena her money back — or even notify the company that Serena exists in the first place. "At the end of the day, if you want to cancel, you should be able to," Elkins said. "How do we find a Serena when an issue like this happens? This is something I really want to improve upon. I feel very terrible for her."

But unless Proactiv streamlines its customer support system, it doesn't really matter how Elkins feels. It also doesn't really matter if Proactiv's actions ever verge into illegal territory, because if you're a broke twenty-something who struggles with overdraft fees, chances are you don't have time to consider legal action. "I can't afford to keep fighting against a charlatan service that continues to ignore my cancellations and charge me for a product I haven't ordered or received," Serena said. She shouldn't have to.

If you have had a similar experience with Proactiv, we'd like to hear about it. Please email me at katie@jezebel.com

Image by Jim Cooke.