December 19, 2018
There’s one of us born every minute. We hate to admit that we are suckers, but most of us have—at least once in our lives—been bamboozled into sending for a sample of a miracle product (acne cure, wrinkle eraser, hair remover) in the belief that we are paying only for shipping costs.
In many cases, says a December 18 story from NBC News, these ads (which are all over the Internet, as well as our TV screens) offer a “risk-free” trial that works something like this: Try a free bottle of our revolutionary supplement. All you pay is $4.95 for shipping and handling on your credit card. If you are not completely satisfied, just cancel and there’s nothing more to pay.
“Many of these risk-free trial offers are not free,” the Better Business Bureau warns in a just-released report. In many cases, there are strings attached, so you could wind up being charged for products you don’t want and didn’t order—or joining a “club” that bills you every month.
Indeed, the Better Business Bureau’s in-depth investigative study found that, if you were to locate and read the fine print on the order page, or the terms and conditions buried by a link, you would 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 that 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.
What’s more, the study found that many of the celebrity endorsements are fake. Dozens of celebrity names are used by these frauds without their knowledge or permission—among them, Oprah Winfrey, Chrissy Teigen, and Ellen Degeneres. Sometimes the fine print even admits these endorsements are not real.
That’s why the Bureau urges consumers to use “extreme caution” before agreeing to a risk-free trial that requires you to provide the company with a credit or debit card number to pay for shipping/handling charges. (Warning: Consumer experts advise against using a debit card to pay for online or phone purchases with unknown companies. If there is a problem, credit cards provide much greater fraud protection.)
The BBB investigation into fake free trial offers highlights a serious and growing problem. Among the key findings:
- The BBB received nearly 37,000 complaints about free trial offers during the last three years.
- Not every complaint involved a monetary loss, but for those that did, the average loss was $186.
- Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about these offers more than doubled between 2015 and 2017. Victims involved in 14 free trial offer cases resolved by the FTC during the last 10 years lost more than $1.3 billion.
“Fraudsters have created a global multi-billion-dollar industry that has ripped off millions of people based on false and deceptive advertising related to fake risk-free trial offers,” BBB International Investigations Specialist Steve Baker, who prepared the report, told NBC News.
The best advice: Before you sign up for a little sample of an unknown product that promises “miraculous results” from a company you’ve never heard of before, ask yourself: Do I really want to give them my credit or debit card number? Is it really worth the potential hassle, if this is a fake offer? You already know the answer.