Free trial offers can end up costing consumers

Free and low-cost trial offers for beauty creams can end up being quite costly for consumers. (Photo:Bettie Cross)

Free trial offers can cost more than you think. From teeth whiteners to beauty creams it might seem like a no-brainer to try before you buy. But the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning consumers that a growing number of trial offers make it tough to cancel and hide terms and conditions.

One Austin woman found out free trials can be quite costly.

"I saw it on Facebook," said Leslie Stevenson.

The ad for powerful wrinkle repair overpowered Leslie Stevenson's normally cautious attitude toward online offers.

"Everybody wants to look better," said the Austin mom.

And nobody wants to spend a lot of money to do it. So Stevenson ordered a trial offer of the beauty cream. All she had to pay was $4.95 for shipping and handling.

"For $5 that's a bargain," said Stevenson.

Or so she thought, until that cream was somehow bundled with a second product. She got two creams and paid two times for shipping and handling.

"I was a little confused," said Stevenson. "I received not one product, but two products.

But she says that $10 surprise was nothing compared to the shocker that came next.

"What is this," questioned Stevenson when she got two unexpected credit card charges.

Stevenson says a few weeks after ordering a trial of the beauty cream she was billed $89 for it and she was charged another $89 for the eye cream. The Austin woman got on the phone with the company.

"Wait a second, I thought it was a free trial. And he said no it was just a trial," said Stevenson.

She says the customer service representative on the phone then told her, "You didn't read the agreement apparently saying that if you didn't call to cancel within 14 days you would be charged for the product."

To figure out what happened CBS Austin went online and searched for free and low-cost trial offers. Stevenson's specific offer was no longer available, but we found plenty of similar deals. CBS Austin ordered one of the face creams and like Stevenson somehow ended up getting two products and paying twice for shipping and handling. But unlike Stevenson, CBS Austin already knew to click on links and scroll through the fine print to see the terms and conditions of the offer. It says customers have 14 days to cancel a trial offer or they are automatically enrolled in a monthly membership program that charges around $90 each month for each product.

It's called negative option billing and it's not illegal, but FTC rules require the terms and conditions be clear and conspicuous to customers.

"It's all in that fine print," said Erin Dufner, Chief Marketing Officer with the Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal and Southwest Texas.

The BBB has an intake center where unhappy customers can file complaints about free and low-cost trial offers.

"It's constant," said Dufner.

And usually it's the teensy type that creates the biggest problems.

"Is it for you? Are you reading the fine print? And, are you willing to take the risk?" said Dufner. "Certainly there's going to be some kind of string attached. There's going to be a catch in most cases."

Beauty blogger Rachel Vrabel tracks trial offers for face and eye creams.

"I can't even keep up. There are literally hundreds of these," said Vrabel.

She runs and says she gets about 25 emails a day from customers who need help fighting unexpected credit card charges.

"I would say 9 out of 10 emails that I get are from elderly women on a fixed income who are desperate to cancel these free trials," said Vrabel. "They can't afford their groceries. They can't afford their medications."

Stevenson knows firsthand how an unexpected bill for $180 can wreck a budget.

"I can't afford something like this," said Stevenson.

So she called the companies selling the creams, filed complaints with the BBB and canceled her credit card.

"It was really embarrassing," said Stevenson.

But she did get a chunk of the $190 back.

"So I wound up spending a total of $55 for a free trial," said Stevenson.

It's money Stevenson says only bought her a lot of stress.

"It wasn't magic. I didn't lose all my wrinkles," laughed Stevenson. "I used them for a couple of weeks until I got the extra charges and then I put them away because I was so mad."

From now on she says she won't take any trial offer for cosmetics at face value.

"I don't trust any of them anymore. I'm never going to do that again," said Stevenson.

"The only true free trial or free sample is going to be going to a beauty counter at a department store and asking for a free sample," said Vrabel.

The Federal Trade Commission has these tips to help protect yourself:

Research the company online. See what other people are saying about the company's free trials and its service. Complaints from other customers can tip you off to "catches" that might come with the trial.

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.

Watch out for pre-checked boxes. If you sign up for a free trial online, look for already-checked boxes. That checkmark may give the company the green light to continue the offer past the free trial or sign you up for more products - only this time you 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 products.

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. That way you'll know right away if you're being charged for something you didn't order.

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. Ask the credit card company to reverse the charge because you didn't actively order the additional merchandise.

If you've been wrongly charged for a free trial offer, report it to the FTC.

You also can file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

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