Be wary of online offers for ‘risk-free’ subscription trials

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They are all over the internet — ads and links leading to pictures of celebrities and “miracle” products that promise easy weight loss, whiter teeth or disappearing wrinkles.

The product is often promoted with a “risk-free” trial. Just enter your name, address and credit card number, and the product will be on its way for a small shipping and handling charge. A recent in-depth investigative study by Better Business Bureau, however, finds that many of these free trial offers are not actually free. BBB receives complaints from free-trial offer victims nearly every day and warns consumers to use extreme caution before agreeing to the offer and entering their credit card number.

The study examines how free-trial offers mislead consumers in so-called “subscription traps” that hook them for expensive shipments of products they did not explicitly agree to buy.

Many free-trial offers come with fine print, buried on the order page or by a link, that gives consumers only a short period of time to receive, evaluate and return the product to avoid being charged oftentimes $100 or more. Additionally, the same hidden information may say that by accepting the offer, you’ve signed up for monthly shipments or subscriptions of the product and such fees will be charged to your credit card. Many consumers find it difficult to contact the seller to stop recurring charges, halt shipments and get refunds. Such obscure and vague terms in these offers often violate Federal Trade Commission and BBB guidelines on advertising, as do the satisfaction guarantees that are ubiquitous in free trial offers.

The study found that many of the celebrity endorsements in these ads are fake. Dozens of celebrity names are used by these frauds without the celebrities’ knowledge or permission. Sometimes the fine print even admits these endorsements are not real.

Free-trial offers can be a legitimate way for credible companies to introduce new products, provided that the company is open and honest about the offer and its terms. However, scammers have turned such offers into a global multi-billion-dollar industry, one that grows every year.

Available data shows that complaints about “free trials” more than doubled from 2015 to 2017, and BBB has received nearly 37,000 complaints and Scam Tracker reports over the last three years, though not all of these complaints involve monetary loss. In addition, victims in 14 resolved Federal Trade Commission cases collectively lost $1.3 billion, and consumers making reports to BBB lost an average of $186.

The reports show that 72 percent of victims were female, likely because many free trial offers involve skin care products geared toward women.

A Missouri woman followed a social media ad for a skin cream that purported to have been endorsed by the TV show Shark Tank. She signed up for free-trial offers of that product and another product advertised on the same website. While she agreed to total charges of about $7 for shipping and handling of the two products, in reality she was charged nearly $75. The website did not advertise an end date for the trial period or disclose that it would continue to ship products; such information was ultimately hidden in the terms and conditions of the offer. In the end, the woman was unable to obtain a refund from the company and could not reverse the charges with her credit card company because she had accepted the terms and conditions at checkout. She said, adding insult to injury, she ultimately disliked the product and threw it away anyway.

The BBB recommends credit card companies to do more to ensure victims receive chargebacks where key conditions are not adequately disclosed. Because this fraud is dependent on the use of credit cards, more effort is needed to identify and combat deceptive free trial offers employing credit card systems. Also, it would helpful if credit card companies could do more to educate their customers about these scams.

Social media sites should do more to curtail and prevent deceptive advertising.

If you believe you have been a victim of a free trial offer fraud, complain to the company directly. If that is not successful call the customer service number on the back of your credit card to complain to the bank. Complain to www.bbb.org; report the fraud to www.bbb.org/scamtracker. Report it to Federal Trade Commission by calling 877-FTC-Help

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Hannah Stiff, BBB Montana Marketplace manager, can be reached at |Hannah.stiff@thebbb.org

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