Free Trial Offers That Cost You a Fortune

7 key steps to beat the free trial tricksters: Internet Scambusters #843

There’s nothing better than getting something for nothing, which is why many of us find free trials of products or services so attractive.

But behind some of these deals are expensive subscriptions that many consumers don’t realize they’re signing up for.

In this week’s issue, we’ll tell you how these deceptive schemes work and how you can make sure you don’t get snared by them.

Let’s check out today’s…

Free Trial Offers That Cost You a Fortune

Have you ever signed up for a product free trial, only to find yourself locked into some sort of payment program you didn’t bargain for?

If so, you’re not alone. And while you might be able to spot some of the easier tricks, other schemes may not be so obvious because the scammers simply lied about the deal.

And, just to make things worse, some of the tricks are perfectly legal because the conditions under which victims end up having to pay often are hidden in small print.

The growth in low cost or free trial scams has prompted several consumer organizations to issue new warnings.

Many promoters of free trial programs ask consumers to provide their credit card or bank account details, sometimes claiming they need the numbers for security purposes, or to cover supposed shipping and handling costs.

In the process, the consumer may not realize they’re also actually signing up for an automatic subscription or supply.

The onus is on the consumer to cancel or opt-out before the trial period is up. Sometimes, that’s not easy to do, and the subsequent costs may be considerably higher than the shopper thought.

“Some dishonest businesses make it tough to cancel,” says the US Federal Trade Commission, “hiding the terms and conditions of their offers in teensy type, using pre-checked sign-up boxes as the default setting online, and putting conditions on returns and cancellations that are so strict it could be next to impossible to stop the deliveries and the billing.”

In fact, in some instances, victims discover they’ve signed up for a whole range of products or services, way beyond those that were originally part of the “free trial.”

For instance, you may sign up for a free product, a CD for example, not realizing that you’re actually joining a “club” that will now bombard you with more CDs, DVDs, books, magazines and so on — while deducting the cost from the account info you provided.

Most of these so-called free trials pop up either online or in TV infomercials. As we said, some of them may be perfectly legal — but that doesn’t guarantee you won’t be out of pocket at the end of it.

7 Rules

Make sure you don’t get trapped by one of these tricks by following these 7 rules:

1. Always research the company making the offer. Put their name or the product name in the search box on your browser. Try adding the word “scam” to your search and see what comments turn up.

2. Check if the relevant website or TV ad offers contact details beyond a 1-800 phone number. You’re looking for a company name, a street address (not just a PO box number), phone number, terms of service and a privacy statement.

As the Consumer Federation of America said in a recent blog: “If you can’t find this info easily on the seller’s website, stop and walk away.”

3. Read those terms and conditions, and other small print, carefully. Look especially for pre-checked boxes. As the FTC says: “That checkmark may give the company the green light to continue the offer past the free trial or sign you up for more products — only this time you have to pay.”

4. Make sure you know and keep a note of the cancellation procedure before you even sign up.

It might be difficult to find in the future.

But if you do get trapped, perform an online search on “how to cancel…” the subscription.

5. Look for and make a note of the date the free trial ends. Set up an alarm or reminder a couple of days before the deadline and may sure you cancel before that date.

Keep a record of the cancellation confirmation — even if it’s just a screen grab.

Otherwise, you may find you’re legally obliged to pay for products that are sent to you after the deadline.

6. Consider using a pre-paid debit card for your sign-up or to cover shipping and handling costs. That way, your exposure will be limited to the value of the prepaid card.

But don’t use a regular bank debit card because it probably won’t have the same protections as a credit card.

7. If paying by credit card or bank account, check your statements regularly for unexpected payments.

The FTC advises: “If you see charges you didn’t agree to, contact the company directly to sort out the situation. If that doesn’t work, call your credit card company to dispute the charge. Ask the credit card company to reverse the charge because you didn’t actively order the additional merchandise.”

Alert of the Week

Last year, we wrote about “slack filling,” the practice of selling products in packaging that’s way too big for the amount inside.

But that’s just one of many tricks some companies use to unreasonably promote their products.

One of the leading campaigners against deceptive marketing practices, Truth in Advertising, has just produced its annual report outlining more than 100 cases when companies allegedly misled consumers last year.

That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.