The Internet sure makes it easy to buy things, doesn’t it? You can have pretty much anything you want with a few clicks and a credit card. It will even let you try things for free, and send them back if you don’t like them, no questions asked, satisfaction guaranteed.
Here’s the catch: “Risk-free” trials are loaded with risks. Billshark has cautioned you about many online scams, and this is another popular, growing, and highly lucrative one. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) estimates this particular rip-off has cost Americans nearly $1.3 billion over the last 10 years, and it’s getting worse. The BBB reported recently that complaints about these offers more than doubled between 2015 and 2017, and that global fraud involving these offers is a multi-billion dollar industry.
This type of scam primarily features body-building and beauty products, but can encompass anything that can be linked to some type of subscription, including books, cookware, dating sites, etc. Most often, though, they revolve around some kind of “miracle” product: to build muscles overnight, whiten teeth, combat wrinkles, or lose weight with no effort. And they offer myriad “testimonials” by “real people” and “proof” in the form of supposedly scientific studies and research to back up their claims.
In addition, these fraudsters often hijack the names of celebrities to endorse their products, not only without the celebrities’ approval but even without their knowledge. Such names as Oprah Winfrey, Rachel Ray, Chrissy Teigen, Ellen DeGeneres, Mike Rowe, Tim Allen, Sally Field, and dozens of others have been used to push these products, without these celebrities’ permission, the BBB says. The practice is so ubiquitous that Dr. Mehmet Oz makes a standard announcement on his TV show regularly warning that he does not endorse products, but that doesn’t seem to stop these swindlers.
“Free” pricey products
To enhance the somewhat unbelievable claims of their products, they sweeten the pot by offering to send you a sample for which you “just” pay shipping and handling. Of course, they’ll need your credit card for that. And that’s where the trouble starts.
According to the BBB:
“They do not just send free product samples to try. If you can locate and read the fine print on the order page, or the terms and conditions buried by a link, you’ll discover that you may have only 14 days to receive, evaluate, and return the product to avoid being charged $100 or more. In addition, the same hidden information may state that by accepting the offer, you’ve also signed up for monthly shipments of the products. Those also will be charged to your credit card and become subscription traps. Many people find it difficult to contact the seller to stop recurring charges, halt shipments and get a refund.”
Where’s the government?
So why can’t the government put an end to this? For the same reason that it’s so hard to stop robocalls: There are just too many of them. That $1.3 billion figure mentioned above is the number of losses that have been pursued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over the last ten years.
The BBB explains, “The fraud involves a variety of players, from those who obtain the products to advertisers, shippers, and credit card processors. But locating these operations can be elusive and identifying those behind them challenging.”
Not all free-trial offers are illegitimate. It’s been a standard way of introducing new products for decades. So how can you tell the difference? Here’s what the FTC advises to avoid the scam artists.
- Research the company online. See what other people are saying about the company’s free trials—and its service. Complaints from other customers can tip you off to “catches” that might come with the trial.
- Find the terms and conditions for the offer. That includes offers online, on TV, in the newspaper, or on the radio. If you can’t find them or can’t understand exactly what you’re agreeing to, don’t sign up.
- Look for who’s behind the offer. Just because you’re buying something online from one company doesn’t mean the offer or pop-up isn’t from someone else.
- Watch out for pre-checked boxes. If you sign up for a free trial online, look for already-checked boxes. 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.
- Mark your calendar. Your free trial probably has a time limit. Once it passes without you telling the company to cancel your “order,” you may be on the hook for more products.
- Look for info on how you can cancel future shipments or services. If you don’t want them, do you have to pay? Do you have a limited time to respond?
- Read your credit and debit card statements. That way you’ll know right away if you’re being charged for something you didn’t order.
The FTC recommends you contact the company directly if you see charges you didn’t agree to. If that doesn’t solve the problem, call your credit card company to register a dispute and ask that the charge be reversed.
Billshark will keep informing you of scams like this because our job is to help you protect your hard-earned cash. That’s what we do when we find all the hidden ways companies charge you extra fees on your bills. So send us your bills and let us save you money.