“Free Trials” and Negative Option Ads: Don’t Let Them Catch You Off-Guard

We’ve all seen them. Free Trial Offers are everywhere – on TV and online. Who doesn’t want to try something new for free? The question is, do they all stand up to the test of transparency in advertising? The Answer: Not always.

Quite often that “free trial” turns into an expensive, long-term commitment that you didn’t sign up for – or so you think. While most businesses try to advertise honestly, the dishonest ones will try a number of tactics to hook you into paying more than you bargained for initially. When you buy something with a feature that provides continuing service or regular product shipments unless you cancel, that’s a negative option sale. If you haven’t heard the term “negative option” before, you’re not alone. This sales tactic is called a “negative” option because, unless you specifically opt-out of the additional purchase, the seller automatically takes your lack of a response to mean that you want to keep buying their product or some additional service – sometimes indefinitely.

The Federal Trade Commission wants you to know that “some companies use free trials to sign you up for more products — sometimes lots of products — which can cost you lots of money as they bill you every month until you cancel.”

Here are some of the tricks to look out for in a “Free Trial Offer” advertisement:

  • Vague or no information on when the offer ends.
  • Hard-to-read or nonexistent Terms and Conditions.
  • Pre-Checked boxes in sign up form.
  • Restrictive Cancellation and Returns Policy.
  • Excessive Shipping and Handling Fees with respect to the value of the free trial item.
  • Automatic Enrollment in a Subscription Program that you did not authorize.

How to Avoid the Tribulations of Free Trial Offers:

  • Don’t click on unsolicited Free Offer links in emails or from a pop-up website.
  • Do your homework. Check out the business at bbb.org to see if the business has any advertising or sales issues complaints or negative reviews.
  • If the Free Trial advertisement does not display its terms of service and expiration date of the offer, walk away.
  • When filling out the Free Trial registration form, be sure to uncheck all the pre-checked boxes that give the business permission to send you additional offers or to enroll you into a subscription program.
  • Keep a close eye on your monthly credit card statement for recurring charges that you did not authorize.
  • If you decide you no longer want to use the product or service, be sure to cancel before the free trial ends.

More About the Free Trial:

  1. Automatic Renewal: The default setting is to renew the subscription at the end of each billing period, unless consumers specify not to renew.
  2. Continuity of Service: Consumers will continuously be billed for and receive products until they opt-out of the program.
  3. Free-to-Pay Conversion: The product will be free for a limited time, then the business will begin to automatically bill your account until you opt-out of the program.
  4. Pre–Notification: Consumers will receive notices offering products or services, receive the items, and then be charged unless they opt-out.

For more information, go to Internet Marketers of Dietary Supplement and Skincare Products Banned from Deceptive Advertising and Billing Practices. Also check out the FTC video, Free Trials Can Cost You. 1. Source: United States Federal Trade Commission, www.ftc.gov – not subject to copyright protection. 17 U.S.C. 403.

To report a scam, call your BBB at 256-533-1640 or go to the BBB Scam Tracker. To find trustworthy businesses, visit bbb.org.