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Free Trial Scams

Online ads for free product trials seem to offer the perfect deal — a chance to try out new health and beauty aids, like supplements and skin creams, with no obligation to buy.

But some free-trial offers are far from free. Many are “subscription traps” designed to deceive you into signing up for regular deliveries of questionable products. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has documented nearly $1.4 billion in consumer losses to this widespread form of fraud since the late 2000s, and that’s just from operations the agency has flagged and shut down. 

As outlined in a Better Business Bureau (BBB) investigation, these scams entice you with offers that pop up on Facebook and other social media sites, or they rank high in search results, thanks to paid ads. They might tout no-risk trials of things such as magazines or streaming services, but most focus on personal care, promising whiter teeth, fewer wrinkles or rapid weight loss, thanks to a scientific advance or miracle ingredient such as CBD oil or acai berries.

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Curious, you follow the link to a slick-looking website filled with pictures of attractive models and terms like “exclusive,” “medical breakthrough” and “satisfaction guaranteed.” They often look like news sites, complete with articles and video “reports,” or maybe they sport logos of major media outlets such as CNN or USA Today that supposedly spotlighted the product.

You’ll see testimonials from satisfied customers, some of them famous. (Stars like Ellen DeGeneres and Sandra Bullock have sued free-trial operators for featuring them in phony endorsements.) All you have to do to try this amazing product is provide payment information to cover a few dollars for shipping.

The claims for the products are usually dubious, but that’s just the tip of the fraudulent iceberg. The scammers are counting on your not scrolling down or clicking a link to read the fine print. If you can find the terms, they might include a trial period as short as 14 days, including the time it took for you to receive the item in the first place. 

If you don’t return any unused portion in that period, you could be charged in full for the products or automatically enrolled in a monthly subscription. Scammers use “negative option” marketing, in which consumers are billed for something if they don’t explicitly say they don’t want it. Pretty soon, packages of unwanted stuff start showing up on your doorstep and unexpected charges appear on your credit card statements.

Calls to the seller’s customer-service line often go unanswered, the BBB found. And even if you can get hold of someone and cancel the subscription, getting a refund is next to impossible. The BBB received more than 58,000 complaints about free-trial scams from 2017 through 2019, with a median cost to victims of $140. The largest number of victims are older than 60, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. 

Warning Signs

  • A free-trial ad makes grandiose claims for a product and urges you to order right away because supplies are limited.
  • The terms and conditions for returns and cancellations are difficult to find or understand.
  • The offer agreement has prechecked boxes. Scam companies use these to make it look like you’ve given them permission to keep sending and charging you for merchandise.

Do's

  • Do search online for reviews of the company to see if others have had trouble with its free trial offers.
  • Do read all the terms and conditions, including any disclosures in small type on the order form. Make sure you aren’t agreeing to charges you don’t want to incur.
  • Do make sure you understand the return and cancellation policies. Reputable retailers give you a straightforward procedure for canceling, such as changing a setting on your account page.
  • Do mark the cutoff date for canceling a subscription on your calendar and set up a notification so that you don’t miss it.
  • Do carefully document your purchases. Take screenshots or print copies of the company’s disclosure statements. Keep emails, as well as all the paperwork that comes with the goods.
  • Do regularly scrutinize your credit and debit card statements to see if you’re being charged for something you didn’t knowingly order.

Don'ts

  • Don’t sign up for a free offer unless you’re confident that you understand exactly what you’re agreeing to.
  • Don’t be enticed by celebrity endorsements. Scammers often use famous names and faces without authorization.
  • Don’t hesitate to contact your credit card issuer to dispute a charge if you are unable to resolve a problem with the seller. Inform the card company that you are not authorizing any more payments to the merchant.

More Resources

Published October 29, 2020

About the Fraud Watch Network

Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.

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