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?” Here’s what could happen:
The offer comes 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 probably won’t 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 little 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.
When you realize you are now being charged for the service (if you realize—we don’t all peruse our credit card statements as carefully as we should), trying to cancel can be a bewildering labyrinth. Seniors who are living on a fixed income and might not be as internet-savvy may fall for one of these offers, and then might finding it challenging to extricate themselves from it.
How did they get your credit card number in the first place if the service was free? 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 immediately charged for other products you were tricked into ordering, or automatically charged when the “free trial” period is over.
The FTC offers seven tips to avoid falling into the “free offer” trap:
- 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.
- Look for 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 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.
Source: IlluminAge AgeWise with tips and information from the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC offers more information and an online video to help you raise awareness of “free trial” scams.