Cheese samples at the supermarket, little packets of body care products at the makeup counter or that little tube of toothpaste your dentist gives you — marketers like to give away free samples in hopes that we’ll like their product and actually purchase it. Plenty of legitimate businesses are happy to let us try a product before committing to buy it.
But the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns that some unscrupulous companies may lure us into signing up for a “free trial” or “free sample” that could end up being anything but free. You might think “What have I got to lose?”
Scams to Be Aware of With Free Trails
You May be Agreeing to Pay
Offers come with a lot of small print to read or scroll through. Hidden in that small print — or even on a different page with a tiny link you may not notice or click on — is a statement that once the free trial period is over, you’ll start paying for the service or product unless you cancel. Is there a tiny check box that says, “Continue sending me the Useless Gadget after my free trial ends”? You can be sure it’s prechecked, and hidden well down on a page of small print.
Canceling Can Be a Nightmare
When you realize you are now being charged for the service, trying to cancel can be a bewildering labyrinth. Seniors who are living on a fixed income or are not internet savvy might find it extra challenging to extricate themselves from the offer.
Unexpected Charges on Your Credit Card
Often the “free trial” or “free sample” comes with a small shipping and handling fee, such a trifling amount that you hand over your credit card number without even thinking about it. But once the scammers have it, you might be charged for other products you were tricked into ordering, or automatically charged when the “free trial” period is over.
The FTC Tips to Avoid Falling Into the “Free Offer” Trap:
- Research the company online. See what other people are saying.
- Find the terms and conditions for the offer. That includes offers online, on TV, in the newspaper, or on the radio. If you can’t find them or can’t understand exactly what you’re agreeing to, don’t sign up.
- Find out who’s behind the offer. Just because you’re buying something online from one company doesn’t mean the offer or pop-up isn’t from someone else.
- Watch out for pre-checked boxes. If you sign up for a free trial online, look for already-checked boxes. That checkmark may allow the company to continue the offer past the free trial or sign you up for more products — only now you’ll have to pay.
- Mark your calendar. Your free trial probably has a time limit. Once it passes without you telling the company to cancel your “order,” you may be on the hook for more charges.
- Look for info on how you can cancel future shipments or services. If you don’t want them, do you have to pay? Do you have a limited time to respond?
- Read your credit and debit card statements right away. If you see charges you didn’t agree to, contact the company directly to sort out the situation. If that doesn’t work, call your credit card company to dispute the charge.
If you or a loved one has been wrongly charged for a “free trial” item, report it right away to the FTC and your local consumer protection agency, and file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.