NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County

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When Free Isn't Free

When Free Isn’t Free

 

            Trying before you buy might seem like a win-win situation. Free trials are heavily promoted for a variety of items and services.  However, what begins as a free trial might cost you real money.

            The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, wants you to know that some companies use free trials to sign you up for products but bill you automatically once the trial expires. All free trials eventually end. Typically, if you don’t want to buy what you’ve tried you need to cancel or take some other action before the trial period ends.  If you don’t, you may be agreeing to buy more products.

            Some dishonest businesses make it tough to cancel, hiding the terms and conditions of their offers in fine print, using pre-checked sign-up boxes as the default setting online, and putting conditions on returns and cancellations that are so strict it could be next to impossible to stop the deliveries and the billing.

            Another strategy that marketers use is that the “free trial” might come with a small shipping and handling fee. You may be only paying a few dollars for the shipping and handling fee but once you’ve given out your credit card information you may be billed for other types of fees and services.

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

             Find the terms and conditions for the offer. If you can’t find them or can’t understand exactly what you’re agreeing to, don’t sign up.

            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.

            If you sign up for a free trial online, look for already-checked boxes. That checkmark might give the company the right to continue the offer past the free trial or sign you up for more products you have to pay for.

            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. So mark your calendar!

            Look for information 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 as soon as they arrive. 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.  If that doesn’t work, call your credit card company to dispute the charge. Ask the credit card company to reverse the charge because you didn’t actively order the additional merchandise. 

            If you’ve been wrongly charged for a free trial offer, report it to the FTC at www.ftc.gov/complaint. To file a complaint or get free information on consumer issues, visit ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261


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