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“Free” Trial Subscriptions Are Rarely Free

Here’s how to avoid them — or get out of them.

I’m sure you gave a free trial or subscription a shot for something — a streaming service, music library, magazine, whatever. Some are upfront about how long the trial lasts. Some disclose that when the trial ends, it’s over without obligation. Some are honest that when the trial ends, your billing begins, and they disclose that, too.

The problem is with the ones who DON’T disclose those terms. Consumer advocates even have a name for those.

Negative options.

“A negative option is when you’re automatically billed for something when you did not specifically say not to bill you,” wrote consumer education specialists with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in its alert about the pitfalls of free trials and subscriptions. “For example, you agree to try a box of products free for a month. After that month, you’re charged automatically for monthly shipments until you cancel. Or you get a magazine subscription that automatically renews when (its trial) expires. Those are negative options. Your silence is taken as consent to be charged.

A Better Business Bureau (BBB) investigative study of free trial fraud discovered that complaints about free trials to the FTC more than doubled between 2015 and 2017. Victims in 14 FTC court cases over bogus free trials lost $1.3 billion. 

The FTC advised there are three things you should know about free trials:

  • If you don’t cancel on time, you will be charged. That’s why they ask for your credit card number upfront. They’re COUNTING on you to forget about canceling. Since you gave them your card number, you consented to be charged.
  • If you have to pay shipping or fees to get your free trial, it’s not really free. Think about it!
  • The online ad that piqued your interest in the trial may not be from the company selling the product or service. “Companies hire affiliate marketers to promote a product and create many ads you see online for free trials,” wrote the FTC. “They get paid every time you click on their ad. Some dishonest affiliate marketers put out ads with exaggerated claims or misleading information to get you to click.”

The BBB offers a step-by step guide to taking advantage of legitimate free trials or subscriptions:

  • Review the sign up form and look for pre-checked boxes. If you sign up for a free trial online, look for boxes that have already been checked. Those pre-checked boxes may give the company the green light to continue the offer past the free trial or sign you up for more products.
  • Mark your calendar. Your free trial probably has a time limit. Once that passes, if you haven’t canceled your order, you may be on the hook for more products or services. Know the cancellation date and put it on your calendar.
  • Always review your credit and bank statements. This will help you to know right away if you are being charged for something you didn’t order. If you see charges you didn’t accept, contact the company directly. If that doesn’t work, call your credit card company to dispute the charge.
  • Research the company online. See what other people are saying about the company’s free trials.
  • Find the terms and conditions for the offer. Even if you heard about an offer through a radio, TV or print ad, the company should still provide the details on their website. If you can’t find the terms and conditions, don’t sign up.
  • Always protect your personal information online. When you sign up for a free trial online, you’ll likely need to provide some basic personal information and your CREDIT card number (NEVER your debit card number! Not online!). Before you share any information, review the site’s privacy policy and make sure the site is secure (its URL starts with ‘https://’ and has a lock icon on the sign-up page). ALWAYS use your CREDIT card for online transactions. Your credit card has built-in protections that make it easier to dispute a charge. Your debit card is a direct line to your CASH. It’s much more difficult to recover lost cash than it is to score a chargeback from your credit card issuer.

With free trials, you have to conduct due diligence. That’s the positive option.

All other options are the negative options. Remember those from the beginning of this story?

And remember what the FTC said about negative options?

“Your silence is taken as consent to be charged.”

Copyright 2023 Wise ChoicesTM. All rights reserved.

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