Free Trial Offer (and Autoship Program) Scam: What It Is and How to Avoid It

You’re on a mission to get fit and live a healthier life.

To help kick things off, you hopped online about a month ago, purchased a new workout supplement through a free trial, and waited for it to arrive.

After a couple of weeks of taking it though, you didn’t notice any results and decided to toss it out.

Well, imagine your surprise when a brand new bottle arrived at your doorstep this morning!

Curious, you checked your credit card statement, only to learn that, not only were you charged a super-high price for the original order, but you were charged again for this most recent one. What’s going on here?

This is an admittedly simple example of a classic free trial offer and autoship (literally, automatic shipping) scam.

Here, customers are lured in through free—or minimally expensive—trials, under the assumption that it’s a one-time purchase.

Then, they unexpectedly continue receiving products regularly, even though they might not be interested in doing so.

Furthermore, these products often come with excessively high prices.

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The good news is that not all trials and autoship programs are bad. But which ones? How can you tell the difference? Should you sign up for one of these programs? And if you do, is there anything you need to keep in mind?

Here, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about autoship programs and free trials so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not to sign up for them.

How Free Trial and Autoship Program Schemes Work

“I purchased a sample supply from an online advertisement, e.g. $4.95. Since then, I have been sent two additional shipments, and have been billed for $89.99, which was debited from my bank account. Apparently, attempting to contact the company by phone is impossible.” – John, talking about his frustration with a popular anti-aging product.

Step 1: An Irresistible Offer

In our opinion, convincing you to sign up for a free trial begins long before you reach the ordering page. Instead, everything you read on the product’s website works to “grease the wheels,” and the trial is only intended to remove the final (and perhaps biggest) barrier to purchasing, which is often price.

To accomplish this, a lot of companies will convince you to sign up by telling you that their trial is “risk-free,” although as we’ll see in a moment, this isn’t always the case.

They’ll also emphasize the fact that you’ll only need to spend a minimal amount (usually somewhere between $3 and $5) in order to try the product.

An example of a free trial offerA screenshot of a typical anti-aging website promising a “risk-free” trial.

However, it’s what they don’t tell you that’s most important.

Step 2: The Short Trial Period

After paying your S&H fee, it will generally take 3-5 business days for the product to arrive.

The problem is that most of these trials last anywhere between 10 and 14 days (which begins from the date your order is placed), so you might only have a few days to test the product before being required to call the company and cancel your trial.

Here’s the thing, though: Other than S&H fees, you might not be aware of any other stipulations attached to the trial, since they’re often buried in the fine print or the product’s Terms and Conditions. Like what?

A screenshot of Terms & Conditions of a typical anti-aging free trial scam.A screenshot of Terms & Conditions of a free trial offer.

Like the fact that you’ll be billed an extraordinarily high price as soon as your trial ends—in some cases, this could reach $100 or more. Some companies also aren’t exactly straightforward about the fact that you’ll keep receiving these products on a regular basis, which is what we’ll talk about in the next step.

Step 3: The Autoship Program

As their name might lead you to believe, autoship (literally, automatic shipping) programs stipulate that you’ll continue receiving a regular supply of a product, and you’ll be billed accordingly each time.

In the example above, since you received (and were charged a lot for) an unwanted product, the reasonable thing to do is call customer service and request a refund, right? Not so fast.

Step 4: Purposely Poor Customer Service

Based on our experience and thousands of reviews from customers like you, less-than-stellar companies use these free trials to get you in the door, autoship programs to keep the money flowing, and purposely poor customer service to make it all but impossible to accomplish anything.

This might include being rude, yelling, making you feel like it’s your fault, refusing to cancel your trial or process a refund, or simply hanging up in your ear.

In our opinion, these companies often do this in the hopes that you’ll throw your hands up in desperation, while they’ll continue draining your bank account.

At this point, you might be asking: “If these autoship programs and free trials are so bad, how are they even legal?” Great question! We’ll talk all about this next.

Are Free Trials and Autoship Programs Legal?

“I have never received any product from this company. When I asked for proof of delivery, they would not give it to me. I am frustrated and beyond angry. I have been going back and forth with this company since February 13, 2016, and I refuse to give up. They will not provide me with any of their company information, where they are located, where they ship from, nothing! I want my money back, and am going through BBB, and whatever legal means I need, to get my money back.” – Koreen, who’s rightfully upset about her experience.

The short answer? Yes, it’s completely legal for a company to offer their product at whatever price they wish (including free), and attach any legal stipulations to the purchase they see fit.

This includes everything from refund policies and warranties to shipping fees and use of your personal information—and in our case, trial and autoship details.

Regarding autoship programs specifically, their legality falls back on something known as a negative option (sometimes also called a negative billing) clause.

Basically, this references “a category of commercial transactions in which sellers interpret a customer’s failure to take an affirmative action, either to reject an offer or cancel an agreement, as assent to be charged for goods or services.”

In layman’s terms, by not canceling your autoship program, the company assumes you want more of their product, so they keep sending it to you at regular intervals.

At face value, this seems to benefit the consumer. After all, if you legitimately wanted a product to arrive at your doorstep once per month, wouldn’t it be a pain to constantly reorder or worry about forgetting?

The problem occurs when unscrupulous companies (usually within the anti-aging and nutritional supplements industries, especially those promoted only through affiliate marketers and social media advertisements) use this clause against the customer.

They’re able to technically remain within the letter of the law, while making their customers feel scammed, which is something we’ve dubbed a “legal scam” tactic.

This legality can also make it harder to get your money back (remember this, because we’ll come back around to it in a second).

Although free trials and autoship programs are legal, are they good or bad? Should you sign up for one or the other (or neither)?

Are All Autoship Programs and Free Trials Bad? 

“Never mind if the product is good or bad, I can't get them to stop sending it and charging me hundreds of dollars! I finally had to threaten them with a lawsuit. That was just today, so we will see what happens. I even tried to send it back and it was returned to me. There isn't even a number on the invoices that I get in the mail. I had to call the bank and see if they had a telephone number in the description for me to call them.” – K, talking about her experience with a bad autoship program.

In our experience, one of the most frequent questions HighYa readers have is, “Should I sign up for a free trial or autoship program?” While it’s a fantastic question, the answer requires us to split a few hairs, which we’ll outline here.

After years researching autoship programs and free trials, we’ve come to understand that they’re not inherently good or bad.

In other words, autoship programs are what they are; in most instances, they’re a hassle-free way of making sure you never run out of a product, and hundreds of thousands of completely legitimate companies use them on a daily basis to help keep their customers happy.

Instead, we think it’s how a company implements their autoship programs and free trials that makes all the difference. In other words, it’s all in the framework.

Here are a couple of quick examples to explain what we mean:

Example 1: A Legitimate Free Trial and Autoship Program

Your company just created a revolutionary at-home teeth whitening system that’s clinically proven to be better than the competition. You’ve got the product, the proof, and the website, but now you need a paying audience.

In order to help get the word out, you give customers the opportunity to purchase a kit by only paying $5 for shipping and handling, which begins their 30-day trial (more than enough time to give it a try).

On the ordering screen, you’re completely upfront about the fact that once the trial expires, customers will be charged the full price of the product.

You’re also trustworthy enough to let customers know that they’ll keep receiving a new teeth whitening kit once per month (and charged accordingly).

Your customer service contact information is boldly displayed, and customer service staff are trained to handle cancelation/refund requests as quickly and pleasantly as possible.

Here, the intent is to introduce a legitimate product to a wider audience.

Example 2: A Less-Than-Stellar Free Trial and Autoship Enrollment

In this example, we’ll find that the company does everything completely differently than our first. Instead of a reputable product, the company purchased some inexpensive junk from overseas, created a hyped-up website with zero evidence to support their claims, and put it in front of customers.

When it’s time to check out, customers might find a link to the company’s Terms & Conditions, but nothing explaining how long the trial lasts, how much they’ll be charged once it ends, how they’ll be signed continue receiving recurring shipments, or any other highly important information.

In fact, without searching through the Terms (we’ll talk about exactly how to do this soon!), customers might not even know who makes the product or how to contact them.

Despite their unscrupulousness, most companies like this are run by savvy businesspeople who understand that these practices will almost certainly lead to unhappy customers. And what do unhappy customers want? Their money back, of course! 

Given this, what’s the easiest way to provide a thin veneer of customer support, while hanging on to more of your money? Specifically, by setting up a phone number and an email address, but when customers get in touch, training your staff to make the process as difficult as possible. 

In stark contrast to our first company, the sole intent of this company’s trial and autoship is to “catch” as many unsuspecting customers as possible, and then siphon as much money from them as they can. 

How can you tell the difference? We’ll provide the answer next. 

How to Read Terms and Conditions

“My biggest issue was that I searched all over the website for the ‘fine print’ and couldn't find it. They say there is a small box somewhere on the page that explains their terms. Well, I couldn't find it and I was looking for it.” – Laura, expressing her frustration about the lack of information on the product’s website.

If you encounter a company that doesn’t openly disclose the details of their free trial and autoship program, this alone could speak volumes about their customer commitment.

As such, if you have to go digging for information, we’d strongly recommend searching for online reviews about the product before making a purchase. After all, bad experiences don’t take long to travel online.

In the meantime, bring up the company’s Terms & Conditions (T&C), which is almost always found under a small link at the bottom of their home page. If you haven’t been able to find details elsewhere, there are six pieces of information you’re looking for here:

  • How much you’ll pay for the trial.
  • How long the trial lasts.
  • How much you’ll pay after the trial ends.
  • If you’ll be signed up for an autoship program.
  • If you are, how often you’ll be sent new products and how much you’ll pay each time.
  • Refund information, including S&H charges, restocking fees, whether or not you’ll have to send the trial product back, and so forth.

Now, Terms and Conditions can be brutally long and boring documents, so you’re probably not going to want to waste your time reading through the entire thing. Instead, streamline your approach by searching only for specific keywords. 

For example, if you’re searching for information about the trial, press Ctrl+F on your keyboard (Command+F for Mac users), and search for words like ‘trial,’ ‘shipping and handling’ (or ‘S&H’), and ‘day.’ For everything else you need, try searching for the exact term (or other variations, like ‘auto-ship’).

Although T&C’s can be long, the good news is that most of the information you’re looking for will be limited to a couple of sections. So, once you locate keywords using the search function, you probably won’t have to do much more digging before finding what you need.

In our opinion, this is one of the fastest ways you can find out information not disclosed elsewhere. In fact, it’s the exact same process the HighYa team uses when writing reviews on new products!

Did you already get caught up in an autoship program or free trial before doing all the research? Never fear! In the next section, we’ll walk you through how to cancel.

How to Cancel a Free Trial (and the Autoship That Follows)

“What can I say? Be careful & read the fine print. I missed the cancel of the 14 day trial & am now responsible for the amount shown & that’s for 2 small sample size bottles. That’s my food budget. My fault, & when I realized my error not to cancel, it was too late.” – Deb, who’s kicking herself for not canceling her trial in time.

We’ll break this down into two sections: what to do before a trial expires, and what to do after the fact. 

Canceling Before the Trial Ends

Despite what you might naturally assume, free trials (especially those from less-than-stellar companies) often begin on the day your order is placed; not the day you receive the product.

In a worst-case scenario, this means that if 1) you placed an order on a Friday afternoon and 2) the company claimed it can take 3-5 business days to reach you, as many as 8 days could have passed by the time your order arrives. 

Ultimately, this could leave you with only a couple days to try the product before being required to contact the company. Even less time if you’re also required to ship the product back to the company!

How can you avoid this? Obviously, the easiest option would be not to sign up the free trial in the first place, especially if you did your research beforehand and found that most customer reviews were negative.

But if you did go ahead and order, be sure to mark your calendar at least 24 hours before your trial ends so you can call to cancel with plenty of time to spare.

Pro tip: Many companies (even the not-so-hot ones) will typically let you know how far in advance you need to call and cancel your trial in order to avoid being charged. In the T&C, it’ll often be found in the same area as any ‘trial’ keywords.

Also, some companies will stipulate that opened/used products aren’t eligible for refunds (even if you call within the appropriate time and even if they’re part of the trial), so be sure to look for this in the T&C as well.

Canceling After the Trial Ends

If you don’t mark your calendar and end up forgetting to cancel, you could pay a lot of money for a product you’ll never use. 

But we get it. Sometimes life gets in the way, and things fall through the cracks. So, if your trial has expired and you’ve already been billed full price, it’s important to reach out to customer service as quickly as possible.

If you’re dealing with a less-than-stellar company, be sure to clearly and concisely state your demands (while being respectful), thoroughly document each call (the time, date, who you spoke with, what it was regarding, the outcome, etc.), and keep following up until the situation is resolved.

If nothing else works despite your repeated efforts, then it might be time to get your credit card company involved. However, keep in mind that it might not turn out how you’re expecting.

Why Won’t My Bank Just Issue Me a Refund?

Remember when we discussed the legality of free trials and autoship programs above? Here’s where we come back to it.

Technically, as soon as your order is placed for a product, you enter into a legally binding contract with the company.

So, if the contract stipulates that you’ll be signing up for a free trial, charged $90 after 14 days, and enrolled in an autoship program at $90 per month, that’s technically what you’re bound to. 

Does that mean companies can do whatever they want and get away with it, as long as they include a Terms and Conditions document on their website? No. It just means that if you call your credit card company to complain, they probably won’t immediately issue you a refund over the phone.

Instead, just like in any other legal skirmish, you’ll be required to prove your case:

  • Do you have screenshots showing there aren’t any trial or autoship details on the product’s website (something the FTC calls clear and conspicuous)?

  • Did you closely document the time, date, and details of phone calls?

  • Did you save all your emails (including ones the company never responded to)? 

If so, these can help you get your money back as quickly as possible. Otherwise, without them, you might be throwing caution to the wind. So, be sure to document, document, document!

Speak Out About Your Experience

“I watched the video on Facebook, using Doctor Oz. I bought the ‘trial’, didn't notice any difference. Then I noticed a big charge on my credit card. I called immediately, they told me that I agreed to buy more, at the time of my ‘trial.’ Now to cancel they will charge over $24, plus shipping. All the attendants are rude and careless. They should be in jail.” – Rosangela, who’s speaking out about her experience.

If you ordered a product through a free trial or autoship program and the experience turned into a nightmare, your credit card company isn’t the only organization you should reach out to.

You’ll also want to file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission, your state’s Attorney General, along with other state (and local) agencies that aid consumers. 

It’s also important that you speak up online about your experience by leaving feedback on consumer advocacy websites like HighYa and the Better Business Bureau.

» More on Avoiding Scams: Common Scams and Fraud Schemes and How to Protect Yourself

HighYa Editorial Team

The HighYa Editorial Team objectively evaluates various products, services, and subject matters in order to provide you with practical advice that will help you make the right decisions.

Free Trial Offer (and Autoship Program) Scam: What It Is and How to Avoid It