The moment you discover that your free trial offer is actually costing you money is shocking, annoying, and might even move you to tears. If you can relate to this then you’re not alone; it’s a widespread consumer problem that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is actively pursuing. Thankfully there are several ways you can spot, stop and avoid these marketing scams.
Free trials have been popular with consumer marketing firms for decades. Everything from cosmetics to software is presented to us this way. They’re popular with marketers because they expose new products to a wide audience very quickly and cost effectively.
Consumers love them because they get free stuff. Who doesn’t like getting something for nothing? From a practical perspective a free trial gives us the opportunity to properly evaluate whether we can really use the widget.
Problems arise when deceptive practices bury the details of the free trial. When check-boxes are pre-filled it means you’re probably agreeing to hidden terms and conditions. It’s likely that you’re on the hook to pay for the product once the free trial period has expired, without being aware.
I was suckered into a not-so-free trial offer by a well known magazine. A telemarketer offered me a free children’s book as a gift with an annual subscription. Great, I thought. However, 30 days later a second book arrived along with an invoice. They actually wanted me to return the book at my expense! Of course I refused, and will never pay them a penny. The time and stress involved in fighting these deceptive charges is often greater than any financial cost.
When an offer automatically signs you up to purchase after the free trial it’s called a negative option. It means you have to take action to un-check a box or verbally decline without having requested anything in the first place.
Experience shows that customer retention rates are much higher when they do this. You buy more stuff when they pre-check the auto-buy box. They use consumer tendencies not to cancel before the end of the free trial period to full advantage, and we pay for it.
Avoid Costs Hidden in ‘Free Trials’:
- Research the company online before accepting a free-trial. Complaints are a red flag!
- Read the terms and conditions for the offer. Simply make yourself aware of the agreement so you will not be surprised by a credit card charge.
- Look for pre-checked boxes. If you don’t want or need the offer then take action to un-check the appropriate boxes.
- Mark your calendar. If you agree to a free trial and must take action before a certain date, then make sure you do so.
- Look for information on how to cancel future shipments. These are notoriously difficult to locate.
- Monitor your credit card statement.
When presented with a surprise fee, you should first contact the merchant and try to resolve the issue directly. If unsuccessful, work with your creditor to stop payment. Charges for items you have not knowingly authorized are invalid. Beyond these steps, report it to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint and file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
Your best defense to these deceptive marketing tactics is to be aware of what you are agreeing to.
Have you ever been charged a fee to go with your free trial?