‘Free trials’ can end up costing consumers money, Better Business Bureau says

“Free trials” of diet pills, wrinkle creams and hair restorers can be costly for consumers, the Better Business Bureau said Wednesday.

“Take time to study the offer and look at the fine print before you order,” U.S. postal inspector Dave Margritz said Wednesday at a press conference in the Better Business Bureau’s Omaha headquarters. “The devil’s in the details.”

If a business relies on a falsehood to make a sale, Margritz said, “then you have fraud.”

Monetary losses in cases pursued by the Federal Trade Commission over the past 10 years total more than $1.3 billion, a BBB study found. While free-trial offers can be legitimate ways to introduce a product, some companies also are looking to make a fast buck off unwary consumers, said Jim Hegarty, president of the BBB serving Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas and southwest Iowa.

“Our study takes a hard look at this multimillion-dollar industry and exposes a lot of fraud,” Hegarty said. “For example, the celebrity photographs associated with some ads, in most all of the cases, that celebrity endorsement is bogus.”

Hegarty said consumers can save themselves money by going to the celebrity’s website and doing some research. Consumers often will find a posting by the celebrity denying association with the product.

Once people accept the offer of a product “on a free-trial basis,” they could be subject to hidden fees, said Ryan Sothan of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office. Customers frequently are asked to provide their credit or debit card numbers to pay a nominal fee, but they could end up being shipped a month’s supply of the product because they do not cancel the order in time.

“These perpetrators are little more than 21st century charlatans and snake-oil salesmen,” Sothan said. “Now, they’re using modern technology.”

Sothan outlined four red flags: products that sound too good to be true, the use of celebrity endorsements, demands for urgent action and requests for immediate payment.

Two consumers who fell for free-trial scams talked at the press conference about their experiences but didn’t give their full names. Linda lost $90 on a “free trial” of wrinkle cream that she thought a celebrity had endorsed. Leroy lost $42 ordering diet pills in 2017 that he has yet to receive.

“When I saw the charges on my credit card, I was horrified,” Linda said. “I’m embarrassed to talk about this, but I hope it will help someone else.”

People can report scams to the Better Business Bureau by phone or the online scam tracker at www.bbb.org/scamtracker/us, Hegarty said. It doesn’t matter how much was lost, he said — authorities want to know.

“Most cases don’t involve large amounts of money,” he said. “Our job is to be a repository of this information, compiling the losses so government can act.”