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Costly Coupons: Freebies That Aren't

Always read the fine print.

Q: I was astonished to learn recently that a company called CompleteHome has charged us a yearly fee since 2000, when I cashed a check for $2.86 that came with a credit card bill. Apparently, cashing the check signed us up with them for life! (We should have caught the charges earlier but thought they were the card's own annual fees.) Needless to say, I canceled the membership, though CompleteHome didn't offer to refund any money. At this point, I really don't expect to recover anything but would like to warn others. — Elizabeth Steel, Villanova, Pa.

A: This is an example of one of the worst types of marketing—sale by fine print. There are variations, yet generally the catch is that accepting a free offer now obligates you to pay later. CompleteHome, owned by Trilegiant, provides discounts and online coupons. Most savings are a decent 10 or 15 percent. (Of course, you have to realize you're enrolled—and use the participating retailers enough to make it worthwhile.) I called Trilegiant and snagged spokesperson Todd Smith, who defended automatic renewals but allowed that you might not have known what you were getting. He agreed to reimburse all your costs. Keep an eye out for a refund of $620.

Recovered by On Your Side: $620

Ron Burley is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer’s Guide to Getting What You Paid For (Ten Speed Press, 2006). You can read his journal on, where there's also a new On Your Side column every two weeks.

Other Freebies That Aren't

Free cell phone ring-tones These may be Trojan horses for expensive subscription services. Best Defenses: Don't enter your cell phone number as part of any online purchase; don't respond to text-message offers.

Free software utilities Browser add-ons you accept while surfing the Net may hijack dial-up modems to place pricey phone calls in the wee hours. Best Defenses: Antivirus software; turning off your computer.

Free credit reports Even the free may lead you astray—to credit bureaus' trial offers. Best defense: Fill out the site's form and only afterward choose a bureau. Then, resist all come-ons.

Submit your own question for consideration in a future On Your Side column.


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