As you browse online, you probably see offers to try out cool products or services for free—all you have to do is pay for shipping. To try out something new that you’re not sure you’re going to like, free trials seem like a good deal (especially if famous people have used it and liked it too).
Depending on who is offering the free item, it’s totally okay to give the product a try. But some dishonest companies will use fake endorsements and bury the terms of their “free trial” offers in fine print (or not disclose them at all). Their real goal is lock you into recurring payments and rob you blind.
Are these scams really that much of a problem?
Yes! The Internet Crime Complaint Center says that from 2015-2017, free-trial scam victims lost more than $15 million. Moreover, the victims were pretty evenly spread between age groups—the highest number being in the 30-39 and 40-49 age groups. Note: this isn’t including the losses of the 14 resolved FTC cases where losses totaled $1.3 billion.
Here’s how the scam works
The scammers start with a product they think will peak someone’s interest—recent examples include diet pills, teeth whiteners, and wrinkle and anti-aging creams. (This author can’t help but notice that the common theme between all of these is that the product targets consumers’ self-esteem.)
Next, they entice people with advertising. The product is a “medical breakthrough” and has the supposed testimonial of someone famous (even Oprah!). Ads also frequently include stories of the many happy customers who have already tried it.
Once they have you on the hook, scammers will encourage you to visit the product’s website. There you’ll see more information about just how amazing the product is. Even more, scammers may create websites and landing pages designed to look like news articles from reputable sources (including URLs that seem legit).
Once you’re on the product’s web page—which looks entirely professional—you might find a countdown clock on the offer, or the site may claim it is a limited-time offer. The goal is to create a sense of urgency so you’ll act quickly and not think or look carefully at the fine print.
After you fill out your information and accept the terms and conditions (assuming you can find them and understand exactly what you’re committing to), you have to pay for shipping the free product to your house. With that payment information in hand, and since you signed off on the vague/no-existent terms and conditions, future automatic shipments keep getting charged to your credit or debit card.
Once you notice and try to get out, see above about terms and conditions. Sometimes they may require you to cancel within a certain time frame—in some cases, only days after ordering, long before you could have received it and had a chance to give it a try. Or the seller may require a Return Merchandise Authorization Number (good luck reaching someone over the phone), or consumers have to return the product in the mail and get proof from the shipper that they were received. Translation: the loopholes keep you on the hook for new charges.
A real-life example
Lisa Lake, a Consumer Education Specialist from the FTC, shares information about that agency’s recent free-trial lawsuit:
“AH Media advertised free trials of skin creams and dietary pills, telling people they only had to pay $4.99 in shipping costs to try the products. But, the FTC says, AH Media billed people about $90 for the products two weeks later. On top of that, the company allegedly enrolled these same people — without their knowledge or permission — in a subscription plan for the products…at close to an additional $90 per month. AH Media either didn’t disclose the terms of the “free” offers, hid them in tiny print, or buried them in hyperlinks, according to the FTC’s lawsuit.
But wait…there’s more! When people clicked the large, green “Complete Checkout” button to pay the shipping fee, AH Media allegedly added even more trials and subscriptions to their orders — for yet another $90 or so per month.”
What the Better Business Bureau says
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) did an in-depth investigative study of these free trial scams. Here are some key takeaways:
Know the law & your rights
- The BBB says it is illegal to offer a satisfaction guarantee, money back guarantee, or free trial offer unless purchasers can get a full refund. Terms must be clearly disclosed.
- It’s also illegal to trap people into continued monthly billing without full disclosure in advance and a simple way to cancel.
Do some research. Search the product and company name online with words like “review,” “complaint,” or “scam” to see what others are saying.
Find the terms and conditions for the offer. If you can’t find them or can’t understand exactly what you’re agreeing to—or what you’ll be charged for—don’t sign up.
Monitor your credit and debit card statements. If you’re charged for something you didn’t order, dispute those charges as soon as you spot them.
If you believe you’ve been a victim of a scam that did either or both of these things, contact the FTC, FBI, or file a complaint at bbb.org.