Free Trial Scams: Would You Fall for This?

Consumer protection

Free trials have long been used as a marketing tool, but lately they’ve earned a reputation as scams.

In fact, the free trial offer topped the list of the Better Business Bureau’s top 10 scams and rip-offs last year. The FTC, Visa, and Better Business Bureau even partnered to educate consumers about these online scams.

What’s the scam? Here’s how it works. Customers give their credit card info to receive a free trial. They then have a certain amount of time to try the product.  If they don’t cancel and/or return the unused portion of the product in time, they’re charged.

The problem is that seedy companies often don’t make this arrangement clear, so customers are surprised when they’re charged, and companies make it difficult or impossible to cancel in time.

A real-world example

For example, take a look at this consumer complaint posted on for an Acai Berry supplement:

“I just tried to call the number that was provided and they said it was a life insurance company from Honalulu, Hawaii. I am livid that they took the money out of my (account) without my knowing. I am trying my best to figure this out. I will let you know if I can solve this problem.”

In addition to being difficult to contact, many of these merchants place unbelievably strict conditions on returns and cancellations, making it nearly impossible to stop the billing.

Who are the main culprits?

Because new companies are constantly popping up, it’s easier to discuss industries and types of products than company names. The Better Business Bureau and FTC specifically mention:

  • Acai supplements
  • Teeth whiteners
  • Anti-aging pills
  • Other miracle supplements (e.g. weight loss, muscle building, skin care, etc.)

So, if you’re shopping online for these types of products, you need to be on full alert. A scam could very well be lurking just ahead.

How to avoid free trial scams

Stick to these guidelines whenever you’re shopping online:

  • Always read the terms and conditions of any free trial offer. A company isn’t going to tell you in huge, bold letters that they’re going to charge you each month and make it nearly impossible for you to get out of their free trial. Those little details are going to be hidden away in really tiny, fine print. Make sure you track them down and read them fully before you do anything, and if there are no terms and conditions, that’s a red flag in itself.
  • Search online for consumer complaints. The Better Business Bureau, Ripoff Report, and Complaints Board are just a few online resources for researching a company’s reputation. Make sure you search around to see if there are any consumer complaints about the company.
  • Don’t trust testimonials and endorsements. Some companies actually fabricate their testimonials, and many claim their product has been featured and endorsed by big names like Oprah, Dr. Phil, and other TV personalities. Don’t take their word for it. Look it up and see if you can find actual proof of these endorsements. You usually won’t be able to.
  • Find out how much time you have. Some companies only give you 14 days from the date you place your order to test out the product and return it before being charged. When you include the amount of time it takes for the product to be shipped to you and for you to ship it back, it’s clear this just isn’t enough time to really try the product. Pay close attention to these timetable tricks as they’re commonly used to make you pay.
  • Keep a close eye on your credit card statements. After you’ve ordered your free trial, regularly check your statements to make sure there aren’t any unauthorized charges. If there are, you should contact the company immediately to resolve the issue. If that doesn’t work notify your credit card company, and file a complaint with the FTC if necessary.