“Free trial offers” are ripping off millions of people.  What you need to know – and share with friends

Below is my original article on this from March 2017

I wrote a longer BBB study on this issue that was released in December 2018 that can be found here.

And I updated information on free trial offers scams in April 2020, which can be found here.

We are deluged with ads for various pills and potions to lose weight, improve memory, help with arthritis or back pain, eliminate wrinkles, or improve sex.  These are in our newspapers, on the radio, and are prominent as links on the websites we visit every day.  Sometimes these even appear in our email.   What do far too many of these have in common?   They advertise free trial offers with “no risk.” You simply have to put in your credit card to pay a couple of dollars for shipping and handling, and then, they claim, you can easily cancel if you’re not convinced that the product is great.  What’s not to like?   But millions of people have been ripped off by these frauds, finding that it is difficult or impossible to avoid being charged at least $100 or so.  So let’s spread the word and help our friends and families from being ripped off.

This article does not focus on whether the products work or the deceptive claims that that are made to trick victims into placing an order.   Instead it tells you what you need to know about how “free trials” work and how to avoid being ripped off by them.  If you place an order with one of these companies it is often nearly impossible to avoid being charged close to $100 for at least one bottle of pills.  And in many cases the companies continue to ship products every month – and charging for them – until you can make them stop.

How many people have been ripped off by free trial offers and how much do they lose?

In six cases brought by the FTC over the last few years that involve “free trials” total losses are nearly $800 million.  Central Coast Nutraceuticals: $80 million; Jesse Willms: $359 million; LeanSpa: $25 million; Jeremy Johnson: $275 million; Sale Slash: 43.4 million; XXL Impressions:  $6.57 million.

If we presume that most people lose an average of $100, this would mean that there are at least eight million victims of these companies – a large part of the adult population of the US.  And there are surely more operations that the FTC has not yet been able to tackle.  I know friends who have been taken by these tactics.  I’m sure you do too.

New FTC case against enterprise selling Cogniprin and Flexiprin

 The FTC has just announced a new case that nicely illustrates the deceptive use of free trials.

On February 22, 2017 the FTC announced a partial settlement with an enterprise selling pills through 30 minute long radio commercials.  Cogniprin would supposedly reverse mental decline, and Flexiprin would reduce joint and back pain.

Flexiprin was advertised as “risk free for a full 90 days” and “[Y]our satisfaction is guaranteed.”

Cogniprin promised “every new customer will automatically receive a free 30-day supply” and that it will “improve your memory and reduce mental decline or it’s free, you won’t pay for it.”

The radio commercials told victims to call to get their free trial, and callers for both products were told on the phone that there is an “unconditional 90 Day MONEY BACK GUARANTEE” on their orders.   But to get that had to pay for 90 day supply, accept a 90 day continuity plan, and pay initial shipping of $9.95.  Flexiprin came in packages of three bottles for 129.90.  It cost $99.90 to buy the three bottle set of Cogniprin pills.

But there were some real catches in this offer.  The company made victims pay for a 90 day supply of the pills and made it extremely difficult to cancel.  First, victims did not have 90 days to try the pills  — the 90 days began to run from the date of the initial phone call, not from the time seven to ten days later when victims received the pills.   If victims called to cancel within the first few weeks they learned for the first time that they had to call a different number to get a Return Merchandise Authorization Number, send back all the products, including empty bottles, and pay for return shipping and for tracking the returns.

And if the company had already shipped a new supply of pills – which they did in less than 90 days — victims could not get their money back, only store credit.

Consumer Law on Free Trial offers

Victims who called the company and got ripped off probably thought that they were protected by generally accepted consumer protection law.  FTC guidelines on warranties state that:

            Advertisers should only use “satisfaction guarantee,” “money back guarantee,” “free trial offer,” or similar representations in advertising if the seller or manufacturer refunds the full purchase price of the advertised product or service at  the consumer’s request.

When “satisfaction guarantee” or similar representations are used in advertising, any material limitations or conditions that apply to the guarantee must be clearly and conspicuously disclosed

(Clearly and conspicuously means people must really be able to see and understand them).

These guidelines are not themselves law, but they summarize the findings from years of cases the FTC has brought.  Most legitimate companies follow these guidelines.  In fact, businesses that join the Better Business Bureau (Accredited Businesses) agree to follow a code of conduct that includes these provisions.

 Why do people fall for these free trial offers?

Some people believe the companies are in effect offering free samples.  But I think most people believe that the company is offering them a risk free bet – that those who try the products will like them and not ask for a refund – and that if the products don’t work the company risks having to provide goods it will not get paid for.  In addition, in many of these cases victims did not realize that their credit cards would be charged for more than a small amount for shipping and handling.

But the game is rigged.   Despite the requirement that any material limitations or conditions must be clearly and conspicuously disclosed, some companies hide them in fine print or in many pages of “terms and conditions” that victims do not read.  After scam companies get a credit card number they hate to give money back.  In other cases the terms are never disclosed until AFTER a victim provides a credit card number.

Click here to see a video of one web site claiming to offer a free trial offer in the FTC’s Central Coast Nutraceuticals case

Lessons About Free Trial Offers

  • These are not free samples.
  • The initial cost is often not just a few dollars for shipping costs. Victims usually end up having to pay for some pills up front and hope for a refund if they return them
  • The companies don’t really provide sufficient time to try the products and see if they work before the “trial period” ends. In at least one of the cases the FTC has done even returning the product the day it was received in the mail was not soon enough to cancel under their hidden terms.
  • Companies make it hard to return the products by requiring victims to get RMA numbers, returning empty bottles, etc.
  • Often the companies will keep shipping – and charging for – additional products until the victim can finally make them end.
  • These companies count on victims giving up, absorbing the loss, and not complaining to law enforcers or the BBB.

How can you avoid being ripped off?

  • See the FTC’s warning about free trial offers
  • Look carefully for fine print and “catches” in the terms and conditions.
  • Check the company out first. Go to org; the Better Business Bureau has reports on all real companies, not just those that are part of the BBB.
  • Do an internet search on the product name and add the word “scam.” If there are complaints out there this will often find them.
  • Only pay with credit cards. If you’ve been ripped off call your credit card company and dispute the charge.
  • Complain to the BBB and law enforcement. Click here for where and how to complain.

Steve Baker, March 2, 2017

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