Buyer beware: So-called ‘risk-free trials’ can wind up being very costly

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By Herb Weisbaum

You’ve probably heard or seen the ads pitching “miracle” products that promise to burn away the fat, erase those ugly wrinkles or whiten your teeth.

In many cases, these ads (which are all over the internet) offer a “risk-free” trial that works something like this: Try a free bottle of our revolutionary supplement. All you pay is $4.95 for shipping and handling. If you’re not completely satisfied, just cancel and there’s nothing more to pay.

“Many of these risk-free trial offers are not free,” the Better Business Bureau warns in a new report. In many cases, there are strings attached, so you could wind up being charged for products you don’t want and didn’t order.

That’s why the Bureau urges consumers to use “extreme caution” before agreeing to a risk-free trial offer which requires you to provide the company with a credit or debit card number to pay for shipping/handling charges.

Warning: Consumer experts advise against using a debit card to pay for online or phone purchases with unknown companies. If there is a problem, credit cards provide much greater fraud protection.

The BBB report explains how bogus free trial offers typically hide important terms and conditions (especially hard to spot when ordering on a mobile device):

  • You’ve agreed to buy that product unless you cancel (and there isn’t much time to do that). If you can find the fine print often hidden on the website, you’ll discover that you may have a very short time — often only 14 days — to receive the product, evaluate it, cancel the order and return the product to avoid being charged $100 or more. Even if you act quickly, cancelling the order is often difficult or impossible to do. Some victims complain that the grace period had already expired before the package arrived.
  • You signed up for an ongoing subscription. The fine print may also state that by accepting the free trial offer, you’ve agreed to sign up for ongoing monthly shipments of this product or others. These will be charged to the credit or debit card you provided to cover the initial shipping/handling fee.
How free trial scams workBetter Business Bureau


The BBB investigation into fake free trial offers highlights a serious and growing problem. Among the key findings:

  • The BBB received nearly 37,000 complaints about free trial offers during the last three years.
  • Not every complaint involved a monetary loss, but for those that did, the average loss was $186.
  • Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about these offers more than doubled between 2015 and 2017. Victims involved in 14 free trial offer cases resolved by the FTC during the last 10 years lost more than $1.3 billion.

“Fraudsters have created a global multi-billion-dollar industry that has ripped off millions of people based on false and deceptive advertising related to fake risk-free trial offers,” said BBB International Investigations Specialist Steve Baker, who prepared the report.


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