'Free' trials could cost you thousands because many are simply tricking you into divulging your credit card details - which they then proceed to charge each month.
The number of complaints about free trials almost doubled last year, according to the consumer watchdog, ECC Ireland. As the traders behind these scams are often hard to trace, it is very difficult to get redress. One consumer who was caught out by such a scam recently lost more than €1,000.
With these scams, you sign up to a so-called free trial of a product such as anti-wrinkle cream, moisturiser or weight loss pills. You use your credit or debit card to pay a small amount for postage and packaging - only to discover later on that you have been enrolled to an expensive subscription service with monthly charges. This is because of hidden terms and conditions which let the trader start charging your card. The bills could add up to €150 a month.
"With many of these companies, you're told that you can't use one product without using another," said Caroline Curneen, assistant legal advisor with ECC Ireland. "For example, you could be told that you have to use a serum along with a moisturiser - or two weight loss herbs at the same time. That means you could be billed twice every month and the monthly subscription could add up to €150. One person who contacted us last year had lost over €1,000 after signing up to a 'free' face cream trial."
Although it is mainly women who are targeted by free trials, there has been an increase in complaints from men. "These scams are targeting male insecurities by offering free trials of muscle-enhancing products," said Ms Curneen.
Most people are targeted online and through social media. "Be wary of anything that comes up in a pop-up ad or a sponsored link on a website or social media," said Ms Curneen. "Remember, these companies are paying for your attention. A lot of these free trials make outlandish claims - for example, they'll claim that you will lose a lot of weight in a short period of time or that the product will make you look 20 years younger. Because it's presented as a free offer, people think there's nothing to lose - however, legitimate free make-up and weight-loss trials are few and far between. These companies are very much operating outside the law."
The companies behind free trial scams often claim to honour the 14-day cooling off period, which is the norm in the EU if you buy something online. Under EU law, this cooling off period ends 14 days after you receive a product which you ordered online. In the case of a contract for a service, the cooling-off period ends 14 days after you enter into the contract. "What free trial companies are saying is that the 14 days apply from the date you ordered the 'free' product," said Ms Curneen. "However, you may not even have received your product within 14 days."
Consumers have run into difficulty cancelling the unexpected payments that are taken out of their cards each month after signing up to free trials.
"The companies behind these free trials tend to be from outside the EU," said Ms Curneen. "So it's very difficult to get enforcement action against them. Very often an EU address is indicated for returns [of the free trial product] - but the address ends up being that of a mail forwarding company or a PO box. A warning sign to look out for is if the only contact information on a company's website is a PO box. Another is if there is no contact information at all."
So how can you ensure you don't get ripped off by these scams? Avoiding free trials altogether is the safest option.
"It's very difficult to get your money back if you get ripped off because if the company is outside the EU, it's impossible to know where it is," said Ms Curneen. "Some people have got partial refunds after they continued to engage with the company and sent back unused products."
Don't hand over your credit or debit card details to a company that offers a free trial - even if it assures you that it is only to cover the cost of postage and packaging. Rather see if it will accept a postal order or bank draft instead.
Contact your bank immediately if you unexpectedly find yourself being charged for a free trial. Otherwise, chances are, you will continue to be charged for an expensive subscription each month. Your bank may be able to reverse any charges that have already been made to your card - and it should be able to cancel future transactions. Not every bank will do so, however. Contact the Financial Services Ombudsman if you feel your bank has handled your case unfairly.
Sunday Indo Business