Business

Consumer Alert

‘Free’ offers often come with a catch

Q. I sent away for a trial sample of a vitamin for exercise enthusiasts. It was “free” except for the $5.99 shipping and handling charge. Much to my surprise, several weeks later I received more vitamins with an $80 charge. When I called, I was told that if I had not declined participation in the monthly vitamin program within 15 days of receiving my “free” trial sample, then I was automatically enrolled in the $80 a month vitamin by mail program. I did not see mention of this when I originally signed up. Is this type of business practice legal? I always thought one had to affirmatively state one wanted a good or service to be charged for it.

Marie Hayman, Milton

A. Federal law prohibits the practice, with some exceptions. The law also requires that terms are clearly disclosed before getting the consumer’s billing information, the consumer consents to the arrangement, and there’s a simple way to stop the recurring charges. The law was largely aimed at companies that used consumers’ information to sign them up for a range of subscription plans following an unrelated transaction.

“Free” trials, as you’ve found, are almost never free. Someone handing you a free sample is one thing. But filling out forms and turning over credit card information changes the game. Once you’ve done that you’re opening the door to being billed.

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This isn’t peculiar to the vitamin world. The typical way consumers get caught up in this sort of thing is by agreeing to the terms when ordering while not really paying attention.

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Companies with such practices often make it difficult to cancel, too. So, if you can’t turn off the subscription soon after realizing the problem – or you don’t get a promised refund — it’s time to contact the state attorney general, Federal Trade Commission, and Better Business Bureau and let the company know you’re not fooling around.

As a general rule, assume that when you’re offered something for free, there’s going to be catch.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.