UPDATE: HERE'S HOW TO FIGHT FOR A REFUND
- Call the 800-number next to the charge on your bank or credit card statement and tell them to cancel your subscription
- Be wary of offers of a partial refund; accepting some money from the company may hurt your chances of a full refund
- File a fraud dispute with your bank or credit card company. Make sure it's in writing or email, so you have documentation
- Remind them of the federal negative option law, which states that companies must make terms and conditions clear
- File complaints with the BBB, the FTC, and your state attorney general's office. All can be submitted online
NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) - When Susan Sinclair saw a Facebook ad for a new wrinkle cream, she decided to give it a try. "It was $4.95 for a one-month free trial," said Sinclair.
The cream was shipped to her home within a few days. The next month, two more bottles arrived in the mail, then two more. Sinclair asked her husband to check their bank statements. There were three monthly charges of $89.95 and $99.95 -- almost $600 in all. "Then I knew I must've been put on some kind of refill thing," said Sinclair, adding, "It's big-time pickpocketing!"
Kathy Hughes had a similar experience. "A sample for $3.95," said Hughes, "That's not a bad deal, I could afford that." Two weeks later, she was billed $99.95. The charge left her account overdrawn, so she was hit with an additional fee from her bank. When Hughes called the wrinkle cream company to complain, "He said 'yes ma'am, when you order the sample you give us the right to keep sending it to you.' And I said 'no, no I did not.'"
The cream is free, but only for 14 days. Once the trial period is over, the customer is automatically enrolled in an auto-ship program and is charged a monthly fee for the cream. It's called negative option billing.
"Negative option in and of itself is not illegal, if it's clear and conspicuous," said Adam Price, Regional Director for the Better Business Bureau of Central Texas. "It has to say, by pushing this button you agree to a trial run, and at the end you'll be charged full price."
Federal law requires companies to make those terms and conditions clear to customers. "And that's where folks get frustrated because they see new bills pop up, or new material is shipped to their house and they think 'I didn't sign up for this," said Price, "when in reality they did, but they just didn't know it."
Blogger Rachel Vrabel has been tracking the beauty cream complaints for at least a year. Vrabel, who runs WomensBlogTalk.com, says she gets 12 to 15 emails a day from customers looking for help to fight unexpected charges. "They just lure these people in to accept their free trial," said Vrabel, "and it's really not free at all."
Vrabel has compiled a list of 250 to 300 phone numbers associated with these beauty creams, so customers can call and try to cancel. She says finding out who runs each website can be a virtual black hole. "They keep flipping links, changing website domains, changing offers so that's very hard to keep track."
The packages shipped to Kathy and Susan have a return address in St. George, Utah. But Kathy says when she asked the customer service representative, "He said, 'we're in Colombia, South America."
Consumer Justice producers found beauty cream companies with post office boxes in Utah, New Jersey, and California. Another claims to be based in Dallas but would not provide a street address. The owners of several of the websites have paid domain registries to keep their information private. "Tracking down who owns the website is a huge issue," said Price, "because it could be coming from anywhere from around the world."
"They enrolled you and hidden where they are," said Sinclair.
Customers who think they've been wronged are encouraged to file complaints with the FTC. Last year the agency fined 19 skincare companies $72.7 million for violating the negative option law. Experts also recommend filing a dispute with your credit card company.
Consumer Justice is not done with this investigation.
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