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The multi-billion dollar business of deceptive and costly ‘free’ trials

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WATCH: Beware of online 'free' offers – Jan 10, 2019

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is warning free trial offers on social media sites promising everything from miracle skin creams to easy weight loss solutions are misleading consumers with fake endorsements and surprise charges.

The BBB says over the last three years, at least 37,000 people have been scammed by “free” trial offers.

“The scam is multi-billion dollar business,” said Karla Davis with the Better Business Bureau.

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The investigative study looked at how free trial offers lure consumers into so-called “subscription traps” that hook them for expensive shipments of products they did not explicitly agree to buy.

The study also revealed many free trial offers come with fine print buried on the order page that often states by accepting the offer you are signing up for monthly shipments of the products and the appropriate fees will be charged to your credit card.

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Customers then find it very difficult or even impossible to contact the seller to stop payments or demand a refund.

It was also revealed that many of the celebrity endorsements in these ads are fake.

Celebrities’ names are often used without their knowledge or permission.

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The BBB says credit card companies need to do more to protect consumers.

“We think they could do more for the victims in terms of a greater sense of assistance in helping them get charge backs. Out of the 56 percent [of consumers] that have requested charge backs, 44 per cent were not approved.
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Only 14 percent received partial reimbursements,” said Davis.

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Clamping down on this type of fraud is difficult because of its complexity.

The BBB says free trial offers can be a legitimate way for credible companies to introduce new products, provided they are transparent about the offer and the terms and conditions.

Unfortunately, fraudsters have turned such offers into a very lucrative business.

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“The operations are everywhere. The fulfillment centers are in one country, the products are being shipped from another country, the customer relations are in another country.

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It’s very diverse. We have recommended a collaboration of law enforcement across the globe because it’s going to take that type of effort to put a stop to it,” said Davis.

So, how do you protect yourself? Beware of the term “risk-free.” Read reviews. Make certain you can find the terms and conditions and read them. Make sure the company has a physical address and not a P.O. Box.

If you believe you are a victim of a free trial offer fraud, complain to the company directly, contact your credit card company and report incident to the Better Business Bureau and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

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