When does sharing become stealing? The truth about handing over your memberships to your mates

Written by
Rebecca Goodman
Insurance expert
5 October 2021
6 min read
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Subscriptions can be expensive so many of us share with family or friends to spread the cost. But is it allowed? And what, exactly, are the rules? 

The Covid pandemic has meant that we have spent a great deal of our spare time watching everything that streaming sites like Netflix and Disney+ have to offer. 

We also spent nearly £2.45bn on, and in, mobile apps, with Tinder and YouTube topping the list. 

In our household there seems to be a steady flow of Amazon deliveries as well, because popping to the shops has become a thing of the past. We aren’t the only ones – Ofcom figures show that UK online shopping sales rose by 48% to nearly £113 billion in 2020. 

But all this convenience comes at a cost, and it’s not just on the purchases that are adding up. The monthly subscription fees, often started as free trials, are sneaking into my budget faster than I had bargained for. 

With an Amazon Prime membership, our Spotify account and our National Trust, I’m easily forking out several hundred pounds a year. According to Ofcom, again, we each spend an average of £13.30 a month for TV streaming services and £26 on TV subscriptions. 

Sharing is caring? 

Sharing accounts for membership services such as Costco or streaming sites so you can save the pennies is nothing new. 

Many people take the view that they’re saving money by splitting the cost and sharing subscriptions with friends and family, with some even joining online communities that allow them to share access with complete strangers. 

We hear a lot about the sharing economy, but at what point does sharing become stealing? Is it against the rules or even illegal? Or is it one of those grey areas where the companies are either not bothered, or are effectively turning a blind eye to what’s happening? 

What can you save by sharing an account? 

From NOW TV to the National Trust, there’s a subscription service for just about anyone, but how much you pay depends on the services you're after. 

Most streaming services start from around £5 per month and you can then pay more to watch programmes on more devices at the same time, such as if you’re watching Bridgerton in bed and your little ones have chosen to watch The Lego Movie in the lounge. Or, perhaps you share with grandparents who might struggle to get the service set up themselves? Generally, everyone can access the service simultaneously so long as they have the log in. 

If it’s a Costco subscription, for example, you can expect to pay £33.60 for a store membership, or £15 for an online-only membership. You’ll be given a range of benefits, including a card for a partner or spouse, and you’re then able to benefit from all the reduced-cost items on offer. 

With the National Trust, you’ll need to pay either £72 a year as an individual or £120 for a joint membership. 

Most companies ask you to set up an account to join and you’ll then be given access to the service or sent a membership card. 

However, there’s very little to prevent you sharing the account details with another person or lending a friend your photoless membership card for the day. 

According to Ofcom, we spend £13.30 a month for TV streaming services, and £26 on TV subscriptions 

Is it legal? 

First off, if you’re tempted to share logins it’s important to check the provider’s terms and conditions. 

However, the sites don’t always make clear what is and isn’t allowed. Some sharing could potentially violate the terms and conditions, but the language used in those agreements can be ambiguous to say the least, with little mention of repercussions. 

Some providers, such as Sky, allow other people to use the service via the Sky Go service while you can add other members to Netflix, Spotify, and iTunes family accounts. 

But this is intended for family members or those in the same household, not a friend to share with and save some money. 

Most companies state their rules in the terms and conditions and aren’t keen on sharing paid-for memberships for obvious reasons. 

Netflix, for example, says in its terms and conditions that any content viewed through the service is for the person and non-commercial use of the account holder and their household. This means, you can’t stream the shows in a venue and charge people (you shouldn’t try and turn your house into a cinema) and you shouldn’t be sharing with friends. 

When it comes to charity memberships such as the National Trust or English Heritage, these charities will be missing out on funds if you hand your card over freely. 

Here comes the crack-down... 

Companies know people can take advantage of subscriptions and share them, directly costing them money, so they have also started to act. 

Earlier this year it was reported that Netflix was cracking down on people sharing passwords and accounts with other households, with some users getting messages asking them to verify that they live with the account holder. 

So, there may be a limited time for this kind of sharing to continue. 

If you’re not willing to try your luck sharing, or feel a sense of moral obligation to pay properly, there are ways to cut your costs with these subscriptions. 

Taking advantage of free trials is one way of getting through TV shows during the free period (something I have perfected in lockdown with so much time at home). 

It’s also worth checking if you’ll be able to get a streaming freebie through another service you pay for. Some TV and phone services chuck in extra streaming services and this could save you a packet. 

It’s also worth remembering that there’s a vast collection of free films and TV shows to watch on places like iPlayer and 4OD. 

Whether you share widely or not is up to you. But the rule is you should only share if you’ve prepared for the consequences if you’re forced to stop by the company and think about how you might manage the cost if it happens. No point getting halfway through Game of Thrones only to find you can’t complete it! 

3 things to do right now...

Take an audit of your subscription services. Do you need them, can you afford them, and is there a way to get them cheaper such as with a free trial? 

If you're sharing an account and want to start playing it straight and paying your own way, check you’re not paying for an account already as they’re often thrown in with other services including packaged accounts. 

Take a deep dive into the free things on offer you could get hold of. From days out, events and holidays to the backlog of TV shows and films on free players - you would be surprised to know what’s on offer. 

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Don’t forget that while you may think that this article is brilliant, it is intended for information purposes only and should not be mistaken for financial advice or recommendations.