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Beware of Free Trial Offers: "Free" Isn’t Always "Free"

It’s a sign of the times during this pandemic as we try to stay connected. We’re on our phones scrolling through social media and tending to email. While browsing, you see an ad for a chance to try something out for free. You think, “Why not, what have I got to lose?”

Here’s why not and what you stand to lose

What appears to be a free or low-cost trial can add up to be much more that you bargained for, with strings attached. Most free trials require consumers to enter their card information to pay for shipping. This information can then be used to cover future costs if the cardholder forgets to end the trial or subscription.

While the cardholder may make a note to cancel the service before any fees hit their card, it’s not always so simple. Some deceitful businesses hide the terms and conditions of their offers in fine print or use prechecked sign-up boxes as the default setting. Often, returns and cancellations are so strict that it could be next to impossible to stop the deliveries and the billing.

Other "free" offers enroll you in clubs or subscriptions. For example, a company might offer you an introductory package of free books, CDs, magazines or movies. If you sign up, you may be agreeing to enroll in a club that will send you more products and bill you until you cancel, or to a subscription that's automatically renewed each year.

Here's What To Do

So how can you avoid the costs that might be hiding in free trials?

  • Research the company online. See what other people are saying about the company's free trials — and its service. Complaints from other customers can tip you off to "catches" that might come with the trial.
  • Find the terms and conditions for the offer. That includes offers online, on TV, in the newspaper, or on the radio. If you can't find them or can't understand exactly what you're agreeing to, don't sign up.
  • Look for who's behind the offer. Just because you're buying something online from one company doesn't mean the offer or pop-up isn't from someone else.
  • Watch out for pre-checked boxes. If you sign up for a free trial online, look for already-checked boxes. That checkmark may give the company the green light to continue the offer past the free trial or sign you up for more products — only this time you have to pay.
  • Mark your calendar. Your free trial probably has a time limit. Once it passes without you telling the company to cancel your "order," you may be on the hook for more products.
  • Look for info on how you can cancel future shipments or services. If you don't want them, do you have to pay? Do you have a limited time to respond?
  • Read your credit and debit card statements. That way you'll know right away if you're being charged for something you didn't order.

If you see charges you didn't agree to, contact the company directly to sort out the situation. WKFCU will not be able to dispute these charges because you gave them your information.

Where to Complain

If you've been wrongly charged for a free trial offer, report it to the FTC. You also can contact your local consumer protection agency, and file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

Always be careful with these types of offers. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

(Partially reprinted from Shazam Blog and the Federal Trade Commission – consumer.ftc.gov.)

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