A “free” trial — a marketing tool offering consumers a try-before-you-buy opportunity for everything from face cream and magazine subscriptions to teeth whitener and weight loss supplements — is often times a costly scam that ensnares the unwitting public.
This strategy is known within the industry as negative option marketing, “a category of commercial transactions in which the seller interprets a customer’s failure to take an affirmative action, either to reject an offer or cancel an agreement, as assent to be charged for goods or services,” according to the Better Business Bureau.
In layman’s terms, this means that if the consumer signs up for the free trial but fails to cancel the service or delivery should he decide he doesn’t want it after the trial period is over, his credit card will continue to be billed.
The Federal Trade Commission warns that dishonest companies are notorious for concealing an offer’s fine print and/or hiding the terms and conditions, sometimes by making the fine print so small it’s illegible or by using pre-checked sign-up boxes as the default setting, so the consumers have no idea that they’ve consented to be billed indefinitely unless they cancel.
Scammers may also put “conditions on returns and cancellations that are so strict it could be next to impossible to stop the deliveries and the billing,” the Federal Trade Commission reports.
“Or, the ‘free trial’ might come with a small shipping and handling fee. You think you’re only paying a couple of dollars, but you’re really giving over your credit card information, resulting in much higher charges after the trial.”
The internet is littered with free trial offers, as are social media, television radio and print ads.
Earlier this month, the Canadian Broadcasting Company reported that “subscription traps” also resort to flat out deception, including fake news articles and “bogus endorsements” from celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres and Celine Dion.
These scam merchants constantly change the name of their products to avoid bad online reviews, the network reported, and use different bank processor names on credit card statements.
In one case, Canadian investigators found more than 312 accounts linked to the same free trial scheme at 84 different banks spanning 14 countries, including the U.S., Canada, China and Latvia.
Some tips to avoid becoming a victim of a deceptive free trial:
- Read the fine print and set a reminder on your mobile phone or computer for the date you need to cancel the offer in order to avoid being charged.
- Never provide credit card information or bank account information.
- Use caution when clicking through the offer. The Better Business Bureau advises consumers to review the order form and look for pre-checked consent boxes. Pay particular attention to check to see if the free trial is part of a “membership, subscription or extended service contract.”
- Make note of whether you, the consumer, are responsible for contacting the company to cancel the free trial.
If you’ve already fallen victim to a free trial scheme, consider contacting an experienced attorney at Bradley/Grombacher to file a lawsuit against the deceptive marketers.