Consumer Complaints

Free Trials That Aren’t Free

By Nic Synowiec, Consumer Specialist
Office of the Attorney General of Massachusetts

You’ve seen them advertised online and on television: enticing offers for a “free trial” on new or unusual products such as skin creams, herbal supplements, computer software, and exercise programs. But these offers often have hidden terms that kick in once your free trial is up and cost much more than you imagined. Remember: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is!

So, what should you be looking for?

  • If you learned about the offer from an ad on television, social media, a news website or a blog, it might be a scam. Many scammers use these platforms to run fake or deceptive ads because the ad space may not be well regulated.
  • If the seller has their own website, check that it contains critical information, such as:
    • Company Name
    • Mailing Address (not just a P.O. box)
    • Terms of Service
    • Privacy Policy

If you can’t find this info easily on the seller’s website, STOP and walk away. A website that only lists a toll-free number and a generic “customer service” email address will be of little help to you if you are trying to dispute a charge or return unwanted or defective merchandise.

Consumers who sign up for a free trial online should also be wary of post-transaction terms and automatic subscription or membership agreements that are often attached to free trials. Some sellers require buyers to cancel or opt-out of this automatic subscription by a certain date in order to avoid being enrolled as a subscriber and therefore subject to additional charges.

It’s key for consumers to look for red flags and read the terms of a free trial carefully. If you decide to buy a “free trial” from an online seller, consider using a prepaid debit card loaded for only the amount needed for the purchase so the seller will have to send you a bill for any automatic subscriptions rather than just charging your credit or bank account.

This blog is one of a series of articles contributed by state and local consumer agencies in connection with the annual survey about consumer complaints conducted by Consumer Federation of America. The survey report provides “real life” examples of complaints and tips for consumers. Have a consumer problem or question? Find your state or local consumer agency at https://www.usa.gov/state-consumer.