Nation's Top Scam? Free Trial Offer

Last Updated Jan 7, 2010 11:51 AM EST

Deceptive "free trial" offers, alluring come-ons to try a diet-pill, teeth whitening strips, wrinkle cream or get a "free report" (that reveals where you can pick up thousands of dollars in government grants!), are among the nation's most sweeping scams, likely costing consumers billions of dollars annually.

The Better Business Bureau put out its list of 2009's Top 10 Scams Wednesday, but noted that those "free trial offers" just keep coming, spurring rafts of complaints. A recent crack-down by the Federal Trade Commission has convinced some online marketers to at least be a touch more up-front about the fact that you might get charged if you don't cancel.

But a quick look at some of the companies that caused many of last year's complaints found plenty of continuing abuses. When I Googled "Acai"--a weight-loss supplement supposedly touted by Oprah--it touted a free trial that supposedly would only charge me a buck for shipping, for example. But flip to the bottom of the page where you can link to the "terms and conditions" and lo and behold. If you don't cancel within 15 days of their "initial ship date" you'll get charged $79.90 and another $87.31 every month thereafter. Will you know their initial ship date? Not likely.

But that's not all. Lucky duck that you are, by taking this free trial, you'll also be signed up for a free-trial of a weight loss program that will cost you $9.95 per month until you discover this unauthorized charge on your credit card and cancel it.

Let's say that you want to whiten your teeth. TeethWhiteningStar (a Google ad) offers a "risk-free* trial." (I really like the way they put an asterisk right after "risk-free." Unfortunately, they lead you to believe that the asterisk refers to the shipping and handling charge, when your real risk is far, far greater.)

If you click on the "terms and conditions" (written in minuscule type at the very bottom of the page) up pops up terms for "My Everbright Smile" saying that you have just 10 days from the time you type your credit card number into the web site to cancel your free trial. It doesn't matter that you probably haven't received the product yet. After that, they'll charge you for "the full cost of the product" even though their terms don't spell out what that cost is.

You can get an inkling of the costs by reading the online complaints, which indicate that several British victims were charged roughly $200 U.S. dollars. Meanwhile, this teeth whitening company has thoughtfully signed you up for several more free(!) offers from third-party affiliates, who will also slam your credit card for a raft of charges. These are called "negative option" agreements, and you can read more about them from my colleague Marlys Harris.

Here's the good news if you're a victim. Call your credit card company. Ask them to reverse the charges. Visa recently expunged 100 companies that it cited for "deceptive marketing practices" from its authorized vendor lists. If they get enough complaints like yours, they'll not only reverse the charges, they'll make it impossible for these crooks to take credit card payments.

Have you been taken by a free trial offer? Please tell us about it here to help warn other consumers before they get taken too.

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