With many people staying at home due to COVID-19 and spending more time on the internet, chances are they will encounter bogus “free trial offer” scams. While celebrities, credit card companies and government agencies have increased their efforts to fight deceptive free trial offer scams, victims continue to lose millions of dollars to fraudsters after the release of a December 2018 Better Business Bureau (BBB) study about the shady practices. Over the past three years, the number of complaints to BBB regarding free trial offers have increased by nearly 21%.

“Subscription Traps and Deceptive Free Trials Scam Millions with Misleading Ads and Fake Celebrity Endorsements,” describes how free trial offers often use celebrity endorsement ads on social media and the internet to attract consumers to deceptive websites that charge a small shipping and handling fee, usually $4.99 or less, for a “free” trial of beauty or health products like skin creams or weight loss pills. The true cost of these free trials — ongoing monthly subscription plans — is buried in small print and behind links, if disclosed at all.

“Free trial offers continue to be a problem here in Western Michigan and across the country,” says Phil Catlett, President of the Better Business Bureau Serving Western Michigan. “Customers think they are only getting a sample, but often find they are stuck in a costly subscription they never knew they signed up for, and don’t want.”

Sandra from Charlevoix contacted the BBB after buying two trial size samples of skin cream. She paid $4.95 each for shipping, but was then charged nearly $175 for a full month of the products. When she called to complain, the company told her she was charged because she didn’t cancel her subscription within 14 days. Sandra tells BBB she didn’t know it was a subscription, and instead thought it was a free opportunity to try the product before making a purchase.

Another common problem customers find is that cancelling these “free” offers is difficult. Sharon in Muskegon signed up for a free trial of a supplement and paid $4.87 for shipping. She tells BBB she emailed right away to cancel further orders, but was still charged $99.74 in each of the next two months. Sharon says the company phone number has a constant busy tone and her emails have not received a response.

BBB urges consumers to:

  • Examine online free trial offers carefully
  • Resist being swayed by the phony use of a well-known name
  • Report free trial offer scams to BBB Scam Tracker
  • Report losses to credit card companies. After the BBB free trial offer study, Mastercard and Visa issued new policies to increase transparency for free trial offers. Victims should call the customer service number on the back of the credit card used to ask for their money back.

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