You know what they say: “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.” And yet, dozens of people fall for scams that promise them the moon — and they don’t realize they’ve been played until it’s too late.
Because of this truism, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning of an uptick in free trial scams. The scams come in several shapes and sizes, but most will look something like this:
You see an ad from Netflix or a cosmetic company saying you’ve been granted a temporary subscription to their service or product. They say it’s absolutely free. The only catch? There is none. They say that, anyway. That is until you’re asked to pay for hidden fees in addition to shipping and handling at a time when it’s too late to back out. Or, you might be asked to share all of your financial information even though you’re officially not obligated to pay anything.
In other words, there’s hardly a “free trial” that won’t cost you big.
In one such scam, a company aggressively advertised “free trials” for skin care products, dietary supplements and e-cigarettes on various popular websites. The lucky consumer would only need to cover the cost of shipping and handling and the product would be delivered – absolutely free!
Of course, the product wasn’t free and the unlucky victims sometimes paid close to $100 in fees before the first shipment was sent out. Worse yet, they were charged this same fee each month for the next year, with no way to back out of their contract until the 12 months were up.
In another scam with a similar setup, consumers were asked to share payment information for the $1.03 to cover shipping and handling for the “free” products. After their order was placed, another screen with a “Complete Checkout” button appeared. Shoppers who clicked that button unwittingly agreed to pay for monthly shipments of the product to the tune of $94.31 each month. And when that button was clicked, yet another “Complete Checkout” button appeared.
Again, those who clicked this button were subjected to a $94.31 charge each month. Consumers who’d taken the bait twice ended up with a total monthly charge of $188.62 – plus shipping.
In a third “free trial” scam, shoppers were lured into signing up for a 12-month trial subscription to a popular service, like Netflix, absolutely free. Unfortunately, though, the company advertising for the free trial wasn’t Netflix at all; it was a group of scammers. Victims were redirected to a new webpage where they were asked to share their sensitive information to qualify for the trial.
You can probably guess the ending: The scammer made off with the consumer’s information and emptied their accounts, went on a wild shopping spree or stole their identity.
Don’t let this happen to you! Here’s how to steer clear of free trial scams:
- Do your research. A quick online search of the company name with words like “scam” or “negative review” should give you a basic idea of what the business is all about.
- Read the fine print. Too often, there’s no way to refute charges relating to this scam because the consumer agreed to pay them. Don’t click anything without reading all of the terms and conditions attached to the offer. If you can’t find any, or you can’t understand them, opt out of the offer immediately.
- Look for an exit strategy. Is there a way to cancel the offer? Can you change your mind about the product? If you only have a small pocket of time to cancel the trial, you might be looking at a scam.
- Always review your credit card and checking account statements. This way, you’ll immediately spot anything suspicious and you’ll be able to determine if you can back out of a shady deal.
- Never share sensitive information online. Unless you’re absolutely sure you know who you’re dealing with, it’s difficult to know if a website is 100% secure.
- Check URLs. When signing up for a free trial, you’ll usually be redirected to a new site. Check the URL of the webpage and determine if it matches the company you are allegedly dealing with.
- Ignore urgent calls to action. If an ad urges you to “Act now!” or claims an offer will expire momentarily, it’s likely a scam.
Read the fine print and only sign up for free trials that won’t cost you in more ways than you’d imagined.
Your Turn: Have you ever been duped by a free-trial, or similar, scam? Share your experience with us in the comments.