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Free trial offers may be scams, BBB and Federal Trade Commission warn

Why don't we ever listen to Big Mama?

We heard her say it a million times: You can't get something for nothing.

It's not stopping the con artists from trying, though. This time it's the "free trial" offers and "free sample" deals that the Federal Trade Commission, Better Business Bureau and Visa are warning us about.

They're calling it "online deceptive marketing." Businesses are using the tactic to lure consumers into services and programs that turn out to be anything but free.

The BBB has received thousands of complaints about the schemes that do little more than take consumers' money.

To be clear, not all free trial and sample offers are scams. Some companies use the marketing plan legitimately. But this is where consumers have to take caution.

Here's how the deceptive marketing schemes work and what you should be on the lookout for:

Consumers accept a free trial or sample offer online that requires them to give their credit card number. What consumers don't realize is that in the fine print they are agreeing to be charged monthly for future shipments.

To avoid being charged at the end of the trial period, Visa says that consumers are required to "unclick" or opt out of a pre-checked terms and condition or payment authorization box — or to call the company to cancel before the trial period ends.

The opt-out provision is buried in fine print that most people are likely to miss.

Visa confirmed to the Consumer's Edge that the credit card company had cut off 100 merchants that engaged in deceptive marketing practices. Visa did not disclose the names of the merchants.

"Most e-commerce merchants care about their customers and conduct business fairly, but even a few bad actors can cause consumer distrust," William M. Sheedy, Visa's group president for the Americas, said in a statement.

David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, added: "Free-trial marketing can be convenient for consumers, if the terms are clearly spelled out beforehand."

So here's the Edge to help you avoid these scams, courtesy of the Federal Trade Commission, Better Business Bureau and Visa:

• Take time to read and understand all terms and conditions, so a free trial doesn't turn into a costly purchase you didn't intend to make.

• Pay particular attention to any pre-checked boxes before you submit your payment card information for an order. Failing to uncheck the boxes may bind you to terms and conditions you don't want.

• Review credit card statements when you get them for any unauthorized charges, and notify the card issuer promptly of any unusual activity or unauthorized charges.

• Try to resolve the situation with the merchant. If you're unsuccessful, contact the card issuer immediately to dispute the charge.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and become a fan of Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Free trial offers may be scams, BBB and Federal Trade Commission warn 12/25/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 25, 2009 3:30am]
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