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Is a Scam? 6 Common Misperceptions

[Editor’s Note: the following is a guest post from Jeff Baker of Family Tree Shortcuts which specializes in using the website.]

First, let’s begin with some facts. Did you know that is the largest genealogy site online? Not only that, but it is one of the most popular website of any sort (ranked #310 in the United States by Alexa). They host over 5 billion records, mostly from the U.S. but also from the U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, France, Sweden, Italy, etc. They are so successful that their stock prices have tripled in less than two years since going public (which is amazing, since they were even higher than that before a recent dip).

The truth is, has many satisfied customers — hundreds of thousands even. So why does there seem to be so many unsatisfied customers as well? Possibly because those who claim is a scam don’t really understand certain functions or features of the site. Anyone who does understand will be able to see for what it is: a legitimate and excellent genealogy resource.

Issue #1: Ignoring Cancellation

  • Problem: You cancel your subscription but you still get charged.
  • Possible Cause: You believe you’ve cancelled your subscription, but you haven’t fully completed the cancellation process.
  • Resolution: Finish out the cancellation process. You know that you’ve done this if you obtain a seven digit cancellation number. This proves that you cancelled. If you don’t have the number, you haven’t really cancelled.To cancel, call customer service, send an email requesting cancellation (only works for customers who live outside of the United States), complete only the cancellation process. Make sure you obtain the seven digit number.

Issue #2: Charging Too Much

  • Problem: You get charged for the entire year.
  • Possible Cause: You actually signed up for the entire year and not on a month-by-month basis.
  • Resolution: Only sign up for an annual subscription if you want to pay for the whole year upfront. displays the different subscription options on a month-by-month breakdown to demonstrate that the annual subscription saves you money over time. But the entire lump sum is charged when you sign up, so be aware of that.

Issue #3: Charging Without Re-subscribing

  • Problem: You get charged even when you don’t re-subscribe.
  • Possible cause: automatically renews subscriptions. This is stated clearly in the terms and conditions. All users who don’t cancel automatically re-subscribe per the user agreement.
  • Resolution: Cancel your subscription if you don’t want it to renew. It’s not a big deal. The great thing is that you can cancel months in advance (with an annual subscription, for example), and since you’ve already paid for the year you continue to have access up until the original date of renewal. But instead of renewing, the account simple deactivates at that time. (Don’t forget the seven digit cancellation number is required to be confident that you cancelled… otherwise, it will renew.)

Issue #4: Incorrect Records

  • Problem: You find incorrect records on
  • Possible cause: Some historical records are incorrect to begin with, so it is true that displays incorrect records. But so will every other resource that has that record.
  • Resolution: Understand that you may come across incorrect records. This is simply a part of genealogy research.Example: when using, I discovered that one of my ancestors claimed his daughter’s baby as his own on the census. Why? Well, since his daughter wasn’t married, I’m assuming it’s because he wanted to protect her reputation.Note: Sometimes there is a transcription error (a “typo” of sorts). This can happen because transcribing is a difficult, tedious, and sometimes a nearly-impossible task. The error could be’s fault (if they transcribed the record); look at the original record to see what is actually displayed.

Issue #5: Private Information Made Public

  • Problem: You believe that all of your information is made public on
  • Possible cause: makes some information in family trees available to allow their users to compare genealogy research and notes.
  • Resolution: You can choose whether your tree is public or private and change this designation at any time. Even when a tree is public, however, will not show individuals in your tree who are still living.Note: You may come across an actual record that has information about you or someone you know. These are public records that is simply making available for research (from resources such as old phone books). These types of records are a matter of public record, usually available through local governments.

Issue #6: Unhelpful

  • Problem: You expect all of the genealogy work to be done for you . . . and it isn’t.
  • Possible cause: Everyone’s genealogy is different, so it’s impossible to say if someone will have an easy time researching their family history or a difficult time.
  • Resolution: A complex algorithm performs searches automatically and delivers “hints,” but there is no guarantee that these will be correct. Similarly, if you use another person’s public member tree for research, how do you know that they aren’t wrong? In both of these cases, you need to verify all information yourself. In other words, consider hints as starting points, not ending points.The truth is, some people can trace their family history back very far and very quickly, while others can’t. Recognize that it might be more difficult for you than for others.

There is no better genealogy resource available than, so don’t let the misinformation about and fear of an “ Scam” drive you away from your opportunity of discovering your ancestors.

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Author Jeff Baker’s exposure to opened the world of genealogy to him, a world which he has found deep and rich with personal meaning. Because of this, he started and manages Family Tree Shortcuts, a site dedicated to helping individuals understand through unofficial video tutorials and useful explanations — whether it’s avoiding common issues or getting the most out of the available databases. Combating misconceptions about whether is a scam or not is one of the many topics Baker covers at his site.


19 thoughts on “Is a Scam? 6 Common Misperceptions

  1. Though it serves a purpose in getting
    researcheds together the product it sells is the free research that others have done. We had a grassroots “keep genealogies free” movement until Ancestry stepped in and absorbed many free databases that we can’t access any longer without paying Ancestry. Ancestry turned genealogies from a relatively inexpensive hobby into an into an expensive pasttime that many of us can not afford. Although I run a site and pay the fee which I think is reasonable, I believe that Ancestry is too big a price to pay.

  2. Did the PR people at Ancestry approve this?

    (Not that I care all that much, but to be honest, I’m not sure this is something I would love if I were them, although I think the intentions are good)

  3. Kerry

    I don’t see the need for’s approval here. This is a combination of opinion and what I feel are well-researched facts on the part of the guest blogger. I do have material connections with as most people know and as I’ve disclosed in my Disclosure Statements here on the blog.

    While the headline might seem somewhat sensationalistic I do think it speaks to a problem of misperception about I’ve not only seen posted at message forums and feedback sites, but even in talking with people at some of my presentations.

  4. I agree that is not a scam, but it’s still obscenely expensive. Luckily, there’s the Ancestry Library Edition, which is available for free at a lot of public libraries.

    I think genealogy should be able to be enjoyed by everyone, so I prefer free (or at least affordable) services. I find WikiTree + Ancestry Library Edition to be a good free combination that effectively replaces paid subscriptions.

  5. Oh, I don’t have a problem at all from that perspective. I just felt like the tone was…well, perhaps not as customer friendly as it could be. It felt a little like, “You think this is a problem? Actually, the problem is that you’re doing it wrong.” That’s probably true, but most companies are careful not to actually say (or imply) that to their customers directly.

    The first point, for example–to say, “You think you’ve cancelled but you really haven’t” seems a little subjective. If you think you’ve cancelled, it’s possible that you’re right, but that something went wrong, or the rep didn’t give you the number because she was new, or you (understandably) didn’t know you needed to wait on the line for a number to be read to you, or you couldn’t hear the rep well enough to understand the number, or any number of other things. I think some customers might be a little miffed to be told that “you didn’t really cancel” when in their minds, they did. Even when that’s true, people don’t generally feel better when they’re told that.

    So my question was more from the perspective that an angry customer who googles an Ancestry issue might not necessarily feel better after reading this. The sort of people who shout “ANCESTRY IS A SCAM!” from every corner are not always the most reasonable folks to begin with.

    (Disclosure: I own a tiny bit of Ancestry stock, I’m a happy customer, and I think the idea that they’re a scam is ridiculous and that all of the points in the post are fundamentally correct).

  6. Thanks Kerry for the clarity – I can see your point now. What I find refreshing about Jeff’s post is it isn’t laden with the “official corporate line” so to speak. I understand that when someone cancel’s there could be a myriad of reasons why the cancellation wasn’t successful.

    I’ll see if Jeff can perhaps work with Ancestry on a more complete response to the issues.

  7. Kerry,

    Yes, I understand your points there. I guess I wrote the post from a different perspective. If someone is already miffed, this type of post is definitely not going to make them feel better. But if their friend was thinking about subscribing to, they’d probably want to do a bit of research. Ideally, they’d see a post like this and say, “Oh, so-and-so didn’t finish the cancellation process. So as long as I do, I won’t have the same bad experience.” By the way, I’d be surprised if someone called in to cancel and was still charged. I was thinking about the myriad of people who click the cancel link from their account and discover to their horror (after getting charged again) that they didn’t actually finish the process. Hence, if you see a cancellation number on your screen, you’re good. If you don’t, you’re not. But your comment makes me realize that I wasn’t very clear about that, so thanks. I’ll try to think outside of just a few perspectives in the future so that it covers more people.

    Oh, and by the way, Ancestry PR definitely did not approve this (or even know about it, for that matter). You’re right — if I were an employee of, this post would have been different in tone. And actually, I probably wouldn’t have written it at all since I’m sure they don’t want to admit to the fact that a lot of people call them a scam. I suspect that they would want to avoid the controversy as much as possible — not stir the pot a bit (as I have done).

    Anyways, thanks for your perspective. Sometimes it’s difficult to see an issue from every angle. This will help me in the future.

  8. Why do you think they never tell the actual dollar amount of the lump sum? On the sign-up page It says 9.95/mo after free trial for US and 19.95/mo after free trial for World. Nowhere does it say 1 payment of 119.40 or 1 payment of 239.40. In fact, you have to read the fine print to see that you get billed in one payment. They do encourage you to compare the monthly price of one month versus the “monthly” price of an annual subscription.

    How fair does a practice like this sound if it were applied to other industries? What if you were to lease a car and they let you test-drive it for 2 weeks and told you after the test drive it’s 350/month if you agree to sign-up for autopay and lease it for a year. Except, after your trial period they deduct the whole year(4,200) in one lump sum.

    The bottom line is Ancestry is billing you an annual amount and advertising the price of it as though it were a month-by-month membership.

    I am an Ancestry subscriber and I love it, but I think what they’re doing with the monthly/yearly business is pretty sleazy and really hurts their reputation.

  9. Don — Great point. I think one thing that people familiar with learn to do is read the fine print because they end up getting burned on stuff like this the first time around. is really good at sticking that kind of stuff in the fine print, and it’s unfortunate because too many people miss it. It’s just like you say, it’s really hurting their reputation, which is sad since they offer such a massive database of information.

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