(CBS News) — A new report from the Better Business Bureau warns “risk-free” trials may sound enticing, but are often scams. According to the bureau, consumers can be misled into auto-enroll subscriptions and get billed month after month, often without ever knowing. Americans have lost close to $1.3 billion in the past decade in these schemes.
CBS News correspondent Anna Werner met a woman outside Chicago who fell victim to an ad with a phony endorsement from the popular TV show “Shark Tank.”
Debbie Wagner decided to give a skincare cream called Dermiva a try. All she had to do was pay a minimal charge of around $6 to $7 for shipping for a free trial of the product that was advertised as something that could hinder signs of aging. When she got the product, she said it was like a “watery cream.”
“It was nothing that you would like to put on your face,” Wagner said.
A month later, Wagner said another shipment of the face cream showed up at her door along with an eye serum from the same company that she said she never ordered. She learned she’d been billed $89 for the face cream and about $70 for the eye serum. She also realized she’d been signed up for a four-month commitment that came out to about $160 per month.
When she called customer service, she said they told her she had signed up for it. But Wagner said she never saw any disclaimers on the product’s website or on the ad that indicated she’d have continuing shipments.
Buried in fine print: if she didn’t return the product in 14 days, she’d be getting monthly shipments of a product she didn’t want.
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Wagner is not alone. The Better Business Bureau found that complaints about “free trials” have more than doubled between 2015 and 2017. Consumers who complained “lost an average of $186” and about “72 percent” of them were females.
“You’ve got a tremendous number of people who think there’s not much risk, that’s it’s just a buck or two to try this thing out, then they find ‘Oh my god, I’ve really been conned! It’s a trap, I can’t get out of it,” said Steve Baker, who investigates scams for the BBB. He said companies rarely give refunds.
The Federal Trade Commission said one of the companies behind acai berry weight loss pills took at least $80 million from consumers through deceptive free trial subscriptions. The agency said none of the ingredients used in those pills would actually cause weight loss and some didn’t even contain acai. The company was later shut down by the feds.
There are also phony celebrity endorsements. Recent headlines on fake websites and social media said Judge Judy was retiring to set up a skincare line. She later set the record straight.
As for Wagner, she said she’s learned her lesson.
“If I could scream it from the rooftops, I’d tell people, ‘Please, please, please, don’t do free trials,”‘ Wagner said.
Wagner got back about $400 with the help of the BBB. CBS News tried calling the company that makes the eye cream she bought, but the calls went to a customer care number.
The FTC and BBB have some tips on free trials: If you have to enter your credit card number, that’s a red flag. Also, read the fine print and check your bank and credit card statements regularly.
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