As consumers, we all hunt bargains. And when it comes to deals, what could be better than free?
Couple our love for a good deal with our desire for quick fixes for teeth whitening, weight loss and more, and scam artists have found the near-perfect bait. Online ads offering free trials for products are tempting, yet they also often carry hidden costs. The Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau, credit card companies and consumer protection experts caution consumers to be wary of supposedly “free” online trials, which rely on our impulse to click first and ask questions later.
“The FTC has tried to take action against some of these scam artists,” says attorney Steve Weisman, a senior lecturer at Bentley University and a nationally recognized expert and author on scams and identity theft. “But people are always looking for these quick solutions with weight loss, teeth whitening, exercise equipment. We want it, and we want it quick and easy. We don’t check these things out. As much as we don’t like to, we should probably read the fine print.”
How Online Freebie Trial Scams Work
When it comes to online ads for freebie trials, the trouble is in “the little, tiny fine print,” explains Linda Webb, fraud expert and president of Contego Services Group. Webb’s work as The Fraud Dog can be found at TheFraudDog.com.
Often these offers include terms in truly fine print or in a light typeface that is difficult to read. You might be required to cancel before a trial period is up, yet the trial period might end before you’ve even had a chance to try the product. If you don’t cancel, you could be committing to regular purchases of the item.
Some scam artists might pre-check boxes in the agreement and have you agreeing to more deliveries of paid product. And since these online “free” trials often ask for your credit card information to pay shipping and handling, these unscrupulous businesses are able to charge your card for the ongoing product deliveries.
Another danger is that by clicking through these ads, you put your computer at risk for malware downloads, notes Weisman.
So why are savvy consumers often sucked in by online freebie rip-offs? Scam artists do a good job of making their ads look legitimate, say the experts. The ads might appear on legitimate websites, such as national news sites. Consumers might assume legitimate sites screen their ads, says Weisman. And ads might be designed to look like news stories or imply endorsements that aren’t real, explains Weisman.
Protect Yourself From Online Freebie Trial Scams
You can take precautions to avoid falling for one of these online pitches. Of course, the best protection is to not click at all. But if you’re tempted, follow this checklist:
- Do an online search. Before you commit, check out the company’s online reputation. Look for consumer complaints. “Put the name of the company and the word ‘scam’ after it, Google it and see what comes up,” advises Weisman.
- Read the fine print. “Understand the parameters of what they are offering,” says Webb. “Know when you cancel, how you cancel. If it’s through a phone number, practice cancelling. You may find out you can’t get through on the number.”
- Note the checked-off boxes. Pay attention to boxes and note the default settings. The checkboxes might commit you to more than you’ve bargained for.
- Use a credit card. Never use a debit card for these online freebie trials. If you use a credit card, you can call the credit card company to stop charges or to request an investigation, says Weisman. If you have a secondary credit card you don’t use as often, reserve it for these purchases. It’s a sobering caution: Webb says these scams occasionally cause so many problems that consumers must cancel the credit cards they’ve used for the pitch. Also, carefully review your credit card bill each month. Scam artists count on your inattentiveness.
- Keep security software updated. It’s smart to maintain updated antivirus security software, particularly if you’re clicking on online offers.
- Report problems. If you do fall victim to a scam, take the time to report the fraud to the police, the FTC and appropriate state agencies.
The most important step you can take in fighting online freebie scams is to slow down, says Webb. By simply taking your time, you’re thwarting the scam artists’ intentions. “They’re preying upon that sense of urgency to get it done quickly,” she says. “They’re looking for the spontaneous buyer -- the buyer who doesn’t think.”
Kim Boatman is a Silicon Valley, Calif., journalist who writes about security and technology. She spent more than 15 years writing about a variety of topics for the San Jose Mercury News.