Think That Free Trial is a Good Idea? Why You Might Be Gambling with Your Money

Have you ever wanted to try a product you found online, but just couldn’t justify paying full price for it? After all, you might end up disliking it, and you don’t want to waste time and money shipping it back to the manufacturer, not to mention the possibility of customer service hassles and steep restocking fees. Of course, this is assuming the product can be returned at all.

Enter free trials. These nifty little marketing tools have been used successfully for decades, but have become increasingly prevalent among products sold online, as consumers become more savvy about what they spend their hard-earned money on. As such, free trials provide consumers with the ability to try out products and only pay the cost of shipping and handling, while companies get to put their products in front of more customers. Win-win, right? Not always.

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This is because over the past several months, HighYa readers have increasingly thrown around the “scam” word when talking about their experiences with free trials. In fact, it’s become so prevalent that we thought it would be a good idea to outline everything you need to know about them, including a complete overview of what free trials are, how they work, why they’re so effective, why consumers often call them scams, how you can avoid falling victim to them, as well as actionable steps to take if you already have. In other words, you can consider this the ultimate guide to free trials.

With this in mind, let’s start from the beginning…

How Free Trial Scams Work

Are you looking to feel like you’re 21 again? Do you want to reduce your appearance by 10 years? How about lose a ton of weight without dieting your exercise? If so, you’re likely to encounter a free trial scam when researching for different options. Why? Because, although these types of scams can technically be used for just about anything, they’re especially prevalent among anti-aging creams and serums, weight loss supplements, and testosterone boosters

Here’s how they work:

  • These products will often make one or more “too good to be true” claims that are made to seem like you’d be a fool to pass them up.
  • Instead of making you pay full price for their product, companies will give you the ability to purchase a trial, usually just for the cost of shipping (e.g. $4.95).
  • The trial will last a set amount of time, typically 14 days, and will generally begin the date your order is placed.
  • After the trial expires, you’ll be charged for the full price of the product, which is generally much higher than the original amount you paid (frequently nearing $100 for the types of products HighYa specializes in). In addition to the exorbitant price, you’ll almost always be signed up for an autoship program at this point, which means you’ll continue receiving a fresh supply of the product on a regular basis, and your credit card will continue being charged until you call to cancel.

Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “This seems like a no-brainer. How could anyone possibly fall for something like this?” Great question! Let’s take a look.

Why Are Free Trial Scams So Effective?

Admittedly, if you were to base your decision solely on the information above, free trials appear straightforward and innocent enough, which is one of the primary reasons they’re so effective. After all, everyone wants to get a good deal on a product that has the potential to benefit them in some way, but purchasing online can be tough, especially if the product comes with a steep price. So why commit to a high-priced product when you can try it out just for the cost of shipping and handling? This is a universal problem that online consumers encounter on a regular basis, and free trials appear to offer a simple and effective solution.

But the truth is that many free trials are purposely designed to make it all-but-certain that you’ll be charged for the full price of the product. Using AbsoluteDerma as an example, this is because free trials almost always begin on the date your order is placed, not the date you receive the product. In many instances, this means that if you sign up for a 14-day trial, you may ultimately have a week (or less) to try out the product before being billed full price. We’ll talk more about this in a moment.

On top of this, many companies will require that you ship the product back to them, and that it’s received and processed (which can take 3-5 days in and of itself) before your trial is officially considered cancelled. This means that in many instances, even if you were to contact the company and send the product back the same day you received it, there wouldn’t be enough time to cancel before being billed full price.

It would take AbsoluteDerma 5 days to reach us During our research, we found it would take AbsoluteDerma 5 days to reach us, leaving only one week to try the product.

On top of this, although they it may seem straightforward, all the details of your trial may be located in hard-to-read text under the ordering section of the website, or deep within the Terms & Conditions (also known as Terms of Use). Because of this, most customers don’t take the time to fully understand what they’re getting themselves into, and as a result, tend to label these free trials as “scams.”

Text located underneath AbsoluteDerma’s ordering section. Text located underneath AbsoluteDerma’s ordering section. Be sure to always look for the fine print on your product’s Ordering screen.

Finally, once you’ve been charged full price, may less-than-stellar manufacturers will enroll you in their monthly autoship program. Although they often claim this is done in order to provide you with some kind of convenience, the reality is that it’s just another way to hook you and get their hands on as much of your hard-earned money as possible before you figure out what’s going on.

In order to accomplish this, most of these manufacturers include something called a negative option in their Terms & Conditions, which “is a business practice in which a customer agrees to have goods or services to be provided automatically, and the customer must either pay for the service or specifically decline it in advance of billing.” As such, it’s highly important that you always read the Terms & Conditions prior to agreeing to a trial (in a moment, we’ll talk about more actionable steps you can take).

AbsoluteDerma’s trial will automatically roll into an autoship program. Full details about trials can almost always be found in the product’s Terms & Conditions. In this picture, we learn that AbsoluteDerma’s trial will automatically roll into an autoship program through a negative option clause.

Common Consumer Complaints for Products Sold Through Free Trials

Here at HighYa, we’ve reviewed hundreds of products offered solely through free trials, including DermAktive, GC180 XT, Ayur, Monami Cosmetics, Garcinia Cambogia 360, Lumanelle Luma Repair, and many more. And among these types of products, most average 1 to 1.5 stars on HighYa, with some of the most common complaints citing:

  • That they were unaware they would be charged full price for the product, what the product’s retail price was, and that they didn’t know they’d be signed up for an autoship program.
  • Failure to work as advertised. In the instance of beauty products, many consumers also claim of negative reactions, such as digestive upset, skin rashes, and more. In fact, the vast majority of consumers who purchased these types of products through free trials claimed that their steep prices were vastly out of line with any benefits they achieved from using them.
  • Poor customer service (difficulty reaching someone at the company, rude/unhelpful personnel, etc.).
  • Extraordinarily high price. As we mentioned above, many of the products sold through free trials that we review on HighYa approach the $100 mark. But the reality is that many of the active ingredients they feature can be found in similar products from local retailers, often at much lower prices.
  • Difficulty cancelling free trials. In some instances, HighYa readers claimed they were forced to cancel their credit cards in order to put a stop to the recurring charges, despite multiple calls to the company, while racking up hundreds in recurring charges in the process.

HighYa Readers Speak Out

With this said, here are a few direct quotes from HighYa readers about their free trial experiences:

“Signed up for free trial, did not receive product for two weeks, by the time you get product, call, you have to mail product back. I was charged for the "free trial" and canceled membership with customer service, suppose to get email confirmation, none received. Do not get "free trial". I blocked further charges on my credit card from LifeForce.” —Gary, LifeForce T-2000
“This product is no better than the cheapest discount store cream. So as far as the free trial goes, you pay only the shipping fees? Well, that's not true. Your credit card will be used without consent for charges that you did not agree to nor had knowledge of. Just a great big scam.” —Maria, DermAktive
“This company is a scam. Do not buy anything from them. Even their "trial" is an automatic auto set up and you will be billed. Their phone number is not on the purchase site. I could only find it here to cancel. They try and get you to continue the auto shipping with refunding some percentage to you. A complete scam. DO NOT DO IT!” —Doris, AbsoluteDerma
“This is just a scam to get you $89.95 from the first order you do not receive the order in time to do any type of evaluation before they are billing you for the first auto shipment. DO NOT BUY.” —Cyndee, GC180 XT
“This product does not work. When I tried to cancel, they made me go through an array of questions which I did not want to answer. I continued to request that they simply cancel the account and they continued to ask me questions. So not only is their advertising deceiving, they make it extremely difficult to cancel further shipments! It's very aggravating. I cannot tell you how many times I said, "PLEASE JUST CANCEL MY ACCOUNT!". Horrible experience.” —Laura, Garcinia Cambogia 360
“This product is a scam. Rejuval Skin keeps making unauthorized charges to your account. Unfortunately I looked at my credit card statement closely after being defrauded by this company for over $600. The company trains all their monkey's (sales associates) to say the same thing "Sorry ma'am, I can't find your name/address/phone in our system. I'm sorry, we can not refund you anything if we can't find you in the system." Meanwhile here I sit with 6 unopened, worthless, Rejuval Skin creams. This company is the epitome of bad business. I can't believe this scam exists in today's World.” —Iris, Rejuval Skin

How to Avoid Falling for a Free Trial Offer Scam

In the past, we’ve made our opinion fairly clear that products sold only through free trials and subsequent autoship programs should be avoided altogether. And admittedly, all of the above information can paint a fairly grim picture of free trials, but the truth is that they do have a legitimate purpose within the marketplace, and many reputable companies use them responsibly (an example of this would be software manufacturers who offer free downloads, but don’t require a credit card number in advance). In fact—outside of never signing up for free trials in the first place—only signing up for those that don’t require credit card numbers upfront may be the best method of avoiding free trial-related scams.

Keep In Mind You’re Already at a Disadvantage

However, if you do decide to roll the dice and sign up for a free trial and hand over your credit card number (especially for a testosterone booster, weight loss supplement, or anti-aging product), the first thing to remember is that the deck may be stacked against you. In other words, as we noted earlier, as soon as you process your order, it may be impossible to avoid being charged full price, regardless of the steps you take afterward.

Locate as Much Information as Possible

With this said, before handing over your credit card info, the first thing you should do is locate and read the fine print related to your free trial, which is often located just below the area where you enter your information on the website’s ordering screen. However, if you don’t immediately find the information you’re looking for, your best option is to check in the product’s Terms & Conditions (also called Terms of Use). These documents can be lengthy, so we’d recommend searching for keywords such as “trial,” “continuity,” “membership,” and/or “refund” to point you toward the section you’re looking for.

Once there, just like we do when researching a new product on HighYa, you should find out all the information you can, including: 

  • When your trial begins (e.g. on the date your order is placed, or when your product is received?), 
  • Exactly how long the trial lasts (in most instances, it will be 14 days), 
  • What you’ll have to do in order to process a cancellation (e.g. call/email a representative, ship the product back to the company, etc.), and
  • Whether your call/email is sufficient to prevent being charged full price, or if the product must be received by the company before your cancellation is processed.

Find Out What Other Consumers Are Saying

Then, once you’re fully informed about what the free trial entails, your next step should be researching the product’s manufacturer using consumer advocacy websites like HighYa. If the company’s been in business for any length of time, consumers will quickly speak up about their poor experiences, whether related to their free trials or other aspects of the company’s business model. If you encounter a lot of complaints at this phase, it’s probably a good indication that you should avoid handing over your credit card information.

During this phase, it’s also a good idea to contact the company directly in order to get a first-hand idea of who you’ll be dealing with. In fact, you can ask them many of the same questions noted above and see how the representative’s answers line up with what you’ve already learned by reading the Terms & Conditions. 

Set a Reminder

Assuming you’re satisfied with what you learned when reading the Terms & Conditions, and that you found the company to have a positive online customer reputation, it’s important to mark your calendar after finalizing your free trial. The good news is that in today’s connected world, you can probably just set a reminder on your smartphone or personal computer, which will pop up and let you know when you need to call and cancel.

Important note: Many companies process the full-price payment on the day your trial ends, so you may want to set your reminder one day in advance. For example, if you sign up for a 14-day trial, the manufacturer may bill you at midnight on the 14th day, so you’d want to set your reminder to appear on the 13th day.

As much as these suggestions can help you avoid falling victim to a free trial scam, what if it’s already too late? In other words, what can you do if you’ve been scammed out of your hard-earned money?

What Can You Do If You’re a Victim of a Free Trial Scam?

We’ve talked about it countless times in the past, but it’s worth noting that millions of hardworking, intelligent people fall victims to scams every year, which is one of the primary reasons why we’re so passionate about what we do here at HighYa. Because of this, if you’re a recent victim, it’s important that you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start putting things right.

Contact the Company Directly

In order to begin the process, the FTC recommends the first thing you should do is contact the vendor directly in a good faith effort to have the charges reversed. Before you do though, be sure to read through our article titled How to Deal with Customer Service & Get Results, which can go a long way toward helping you find success from the get-go. During this step, you’ll also want to get in the habit of keeping everything related to the problem organized (bills, hard copies of emails, other correspondence, etc.), preferably in an easily-accessible folder.

File a Dispute with Your Credit Card Company

If that doesn’t work, you can contact your credit card company and request that the charges be reversed. However, keep in mind that when compared to other types of scams such as identity fraud, it can be more difficult to convince the credit card company that the charges deserve to be reversed, since you actively ordered the product and the company technically let you know what you were getting in to (whether through the text underneath the ordering form or in their Terms & Conditions). However, having all your documentation easily accessible can make this step go much more smoothly.

On top of this, the protection you’ll have against free trial scams can differ depending on the type of card you have (even if issued through MasterCard or VISA), since these organizations simply process payments, while specific banks provide the money to fund each transaction. As such, you should contact each of your VISA and MasterCard-based credit cards and speak with a representative about the security features they offer, and whether these apply to free trials.

For bank-direct cards such as Discover and American Express, we contacted these companies individually and found that, while all customer disputes are handled on a case-by-case basis, free trial charges are difficult to overturn since you’re giving these manufacturers the “green light” to continuously charge your card. Because of this, the burden of proof is on you to prove you weren’t sufficiently notified of the free trial’s complete terms, which can be difficult (if not impossible) after the fact. In both instances, the representatives we spoke with recommended staying away from free trials altogether.

Share Your Experience

As we mentioned in What to Do if You’ve Been Scammed by a Company, you should also share your free trial experience on customer review websites like HighYa, so that other consumers just like you can avoid the same fate. In addition, you’ll also want to report your case to the Federal Trade Commission so that if enough complaints mount about the company, the government may choose to become involved. 

Take Legal Action

And finally, if all else fails, you might consider starting a new, or becoming part of an existing, class action lawsuit.

What’s Your Experience with Free Trials? Do You Think They’re Scams?

Here at HighYa, we’re not just about making you a more informed consumer, we’re also passionate about giving you a safe space where you can share your experiences, give us your opinions, and start a conversation with others just like you.

But in order to accomplish this, we need your help. In other words, take a moment to tell us about your experience with free trials. Did everything go smoothly, or did you lose money? Was the company a pleasure to deal with, or did you have to battle your credit card company to have the charges reversed?

Whatever it is, we (as well as your fellow consumers) want to know all about it! So speak up by leaving a comment below, or by writing your very own review!

Derek Lakin

With more than a decade of experience as a copywriter, Derek takes a detail-oriented, step-by-step approach to help you shop smarter. Whether it’s nutritional supplements or new scams, he believes an informed consumer is a happy customer.

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