CROMWELL, CT — The internet runs rampant with ads and links containing celebrity photos and “miracle” products that promise easy weight loss, whiter teeth or disappearing wrinkles. You may be enticed to try these products through a “risk-free” trial: Just enter your name, address and credit card number, and the product will be on its way for only a small shipping and handling charge. But don't be fooled!
An in-depth investigative study by Better Business Bureau (BBB) finds that many of these free trial offers aren't actually free. BBB receives complaints from free trial offer victims nearly every day. They warn consumers to use extreme caution before agreeing to an offer or entering credit card information.
Free trial offers entangle consumers in so-called “subscription traps”. These traps hook shoppers into expensive shipments of products they didn't explicitly agree to buy. Many of these offers have fine print, which states that by accepting the offer, you’ve signed up for monthly shipments with expensive recurring fees. Many consumers find it difficult to contact the seller to stop these charges, halt shipments and get refunds.
The study found that many of the celebrity endorsements in these ads are fake. Dozens of celebrity names are used by these frauds without their knowledge or permission, ranging from Connecticut's own Kathie Lee Gifford, to Ellen DeGeneres, Mike Rowe, and HGTV star Joanna Gaines. Sometimes the fine print even admits these endorsements are not real.
Free trial offers can be a legitimate way for credible companies to introduce new products, if companies are transparent about the offer and terms. However, fraudsters have turned such offers into a global multi-billion-dollar industry. Obscure terms hidden in these offers often violate Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and BBB guidelines on advertising, as do the satisfaction guarantees that are common in a free trial offer.
Available FTC data shows that complaints about “free trials” more than doubled from 2015 to 2017, and BBB has received nearly 37,000 complaints and Scam Tracker reports over the last three years. In addition, victims in 14 resolved FTC cases collectively lost $1.3 billion. Consumers making reports to BBB lost an average of $186.
An examination of the BBB complaints and reports found that victims come from a range of demographics. BBB reports show that 72 percent of victims were female, likely because many free trial offers involve skin care products geared toward women.
BBB Serving Connecticut offers these tips on how to avoid a free trial offer scam:
- Research the company. See if there have been any other complaints or reviews for the company or website. You can learn a lot from other consumers' online reviews. You can always search BBB.org to see if a company is trustworthy or not.
- Watch for pre-checked boxes. If the boxes are already checked for you, there's a good chance you wouldn't want to check that box on your own. Beware of pre-checked boxes agreeing to a contract, future shipments, membership fees or cancellation policy information.
- Read the terms and conditions. If you can’t find any terms and conditions, that is a red flag. You should know what you are agreeing to before you submit an order.
- Don't trust celebrity endorsements. Just because the company or advertisement claims they are endorsed by a celebrity doesn't mean they actually are. Refer to the celebrities' official social media pages or website to make sure they actually endorse the product.
- Locate contact information. Make sure you know where the company is located and how to contact them if you have an issue with your purchase. Be weary of companies who only offer form pages and not an email address or phone number for customer service.
What to do if you believe you have been a victim of a free trial offer fraud:
- Contact the company directly if possible.
- Call the customer service number on the back of your credit card.
- Submit a complaint to BBB.org
- Report the fraud to BBB.org/ScamTracker
- Report it to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or call 877-FTC-Help
- Report it to Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3
- Report suspicious, confusing or misleading ads to BBB Ad Truth.