Phony ‘free trial’ offers infesting the web, social media: How not to fall victim

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – We have all seen them: Ads offering you a free trial for everything from beauty and health products to streaming services.

The problem is, hardly anything is ever free and the number of phony free offers is on the rise.

Consumer advocates the FTC and the BBB say they are infesting the internet and are the scourge of social media.

It begins when you receive a package for a product you’ve been waiting for, that the manufacturer is letting you try for “free.”

But, unbeknownst to you—the package contains more than your free product.

It contains an automatic monthly renewal for the product, a hard to cancel agreement and a product that is junk because it doesn’t work as advertised.

Almost anyone can get caught by those free trials—even the state’s attorney general.

“I went to a website and something came up that I clicked and it was a free trial and then it was gone and I had no idea how to undo it,” said Josh Stein. “Fortunately it was a legitimate company and they sent me an email and I immediately unsubscribed.”

But others aren’t so lucky. They get hooked in.

Take Debbie Wagner, who signed up for a free trial of a skincare cream.

After paying $7 for shipping and handling, she received the product for free.

“It was like a watery cream,” Wagner told CBS News. “It was nothing that you would like to put on your face.”

She thought that was the end of it, but a month later, Wagner was surprised when another shipment of the face cream showed up along with an eye serum she says she never ordered.

The company charged her $89 dollars for the face cream, and about $70 for the eye serum.

“It’s like $160 a month,” said Wagner, who found she was on the hook for at least 4 months supply.

When she called customer service, and they told her she’d signed up for it.

“When you get an offer for a free trial you have to read the fine print because they’ll entice you with the free, but if you don’t act by a certain date, you could be subscribed for a year and pay money every month,” warns Stein.

The Better Business Bureau found complaints about “free trials” more than doubled between 2015 and 2017 saying consumers who complained lost an average of $186 dollars.

The BBB says 72 percent of the “free trial victims” were females.

“You’ve got a tremendous number of people who think there’s not much risk, that it’s just a buck or two to try this thing out,” said Steve Baker of the BBB.  “Then they find, “Oh my God, I’ve really been conned! It’s a trap, I can’t get out of it.’”

The BBB says slick looking websites and enticing endorsements hide the fact that companies use fulfillment services here in the U.S. to ship the products while the company itself is located outside the country.

“Sometimes it’s hard to locate them,” says Stein. “But we will do whatever we possibly can do to make sure no one is taken advantage of.”

The Restore Online Shopping Confidence Act makes it illegal to trap consumers into continued monthly billing without full disclosure.

But many times that disclosure is hidden in fine print— so read everything on the ad carefully.

The Restore Online Shopping Confidence Act was enacted in 2010—and has many asking exactly what it does to protect people.

There are a number of guides like this which seek to answer the most frequently asked questions.

To be safe from scams, some consumers tell me they avoid free trials altogether.

“I am wise to the fact they are not free and I don’t bother reading anything into it,’’ said Cindy from Cary.

“My dad always said if it’s something you don’t need—even if it’s on sale—you don’t need it,” said Robbie Castleberry, who avoids free offers. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

The free trial offers aren’t relegated to consumer goods.

The CBS 17 Investigative unit filed a freedom of information act request with the Federal Trade Commission Asking for the top 5 companies with the most free trial complaints.

It found 244 complaints mostly against companies that provide entertainment like Hulu, Direct TV, Amazon, Sling TV and AT&T.

The FTC has issued warnings about how to avoid free trial scams showing what you really pay.

“Be suspicious. Use a credit card so if some scam company does get you for a free trial you didn’t sign up for, you can challenge it with your credit card company,” said Stein.

When you use the internet to order something you should get what you paid for, not pay and pay and pay for what you receive. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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