How 'Free Trial' Ads on Facebook Can Cost You Big

The ABC News Fixer says some "free trial" ads are hiding sneaky subscriptions.

BySTEPHANIE ZIMMERMANN
September 17, 2016, 8:02 AM

THE ABC NEWS FIXER— -- Christie Serritella of Chicago says she almost never clicks on online ads, but when a “free trial” of eye gel popped up recently, she went for what seemed to be a great deal. Christie thought she’d pay just $4.95 for shipping and handling to try a new product, but when the charges hit her account, they totaled more than $180!

Read Christie’s original letter to The ABC News Fixer below, and see how The Fixer helped get her money back. Also, check out The Fixer’s advice on free trial offers that might not always be as free as they seem.

Do YOU have a consumer problem? Maybe The Fixer can help! Submit your problems at ABCNews.com/Fixer.

Dear ABC News Fixer: I ordered a free trial of some eye gel and face cream that I saw on Facebook. I paid $4.95 twice for the two products, for shipping and handling.

Then I got billed $92.93 and $89.95. This apparently is an automatic, recurring charge.

I used my bank debit card. The charges hit on the 15th day after I ordered. I tried calling the business to reverse the debits and cancel the recurring fees. The woman on the line gave me a total runaround and pretended she couldn't hear me; then she even tried to get me to keep it for a cheaper price. It is a total rip-off. I didn’t realize until later it was some sort of subscription.

When I spoke with my bank, they knew all about it. It is over $180 that I have to pay. Please help!

- Christie Serritella, Chicago

Dear Christie: Who hasn’t been tempted by those ads that pop up not only on Facebook but on other websites on our phones or computers?

Those ads are effective, especially the “free trial” offers.

You told the ABC News Fixer that looking back, the first red flag came when you ordered the eye gel. It somehow got bundled with a second “free” product, the face cream. Each carried a $4.95 shipping and handling charge, but you said it still sounded like a good deal so you weren’t too worried.

Red flag No. 2 came when the package arrived. Instead of two trial-size containers, you unpacked two full-sized jars of moisturizers.

And then, your bank statement and those two whopping debits for $92.93 and $89.95. Red flag No. 3 was that the debits were made by two companies you had never heard of -- one apparently a fitness business and the other a hair growth business, both based in Florida.

When you called the numbers associated with those companies, you reached a woman who informed you that the offer’s terms and conditions stated that the “free trial” goes for 14 days and on the 15th day, the consumer gets charged the full price -- and keeps getting charged, each month, as more products are sent until cancelled.

Plus – and this is the important part – she said the clock starts ticking on the free trial from the moment you order the product, not when you actually receive it.

That means if a person’s mail is slow, they could conceivably use up their whole free trial period before they even touch the product.

You told us the company rep tried to keep you as a monthly subscriber, even offering to slash the price. At last, you said, she allowed you to cancel – but she would not refund those first monthly fees, which totaled $182.88.

We had a little better luck. We were able to reach a manager at one of the two companies listed on your bill and told them you had signed up without understanding the subscription. They agreed to refund the two charges and they confirmed that you are now completely cancelled.

As for other consumers, though, they said they stand by their subscription terms.

An interesting note to this investigation. While researching your issue, we found numerous online sellers marketing the same types of moisturizers, all using a similar “free trial” pitch.

We’ve also seen this sales model with other online products such as e-cigarettes and diet supplements.

The common thread is there’s always an eye-catching free trial, but if you read the terms, there’s usually a subscription and a big charge that hits after two weeks.

So next time you see one of these tempting ads, remember:

- The free trial period typically begins the moment you sign up and give your credit or debit card information – not when you actually receive the product.

- Be sure you read the terms and conditions of ANY online offer before deciding to sign up.

- Even if you cancel a product subscription, you might end up paying more money for that first month than you would have spent buying a similar product at a store.

— The ABC News Fixer

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