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Free Trial Offers Not Always Free

By Staff | Jan 31, 2008

On a daily basis, Palo Alto County residents are bombarded with mass mailings and e-mailings offering “Free Trial Offers” and in many cases, are being billed for something that is touted as being free. The Palo Alto County Sheriff’s Office and the Iowa Attorney General’s Officer are urging residents to watch credit card and charge account statements for unfamiliar charges.

According to Attorney General Tom Miller’s office, consumers are being charged for products or services in many instances that they don’t even know about, usually as the result of accepting a “free trial offer” for a club membership, travel club or even credit protection plans. The charges begin after a trial period, usually 30 days, expires and are billed automatically each month to a credit card or bank account.

“Consumers are often surprised when, and if, they discover the unexpected bill,” Miller said. “The problem seems to stem from two things. First, the consumers may not realize that the seller already has the key information to bill their credit card or bank account, and secondly, some sellers use questionable tactics to try and shift the burden onto the consumer to cancel.”

In almost every case, if a consumer doesn’t cancel the service or membership inside the 30 day free trial period, a credit card or bank account can be charged the monthly or a yearly membership fee.

The “free trial offers” arrive in many ways. They can come from telephone solicitations after you’ve made hotel reservations or ordered tickets or the like. The telemarketer might ask if you would be interested in obtaining a membership and offers a “free trial membership.”

Another way these offers arrive is in the mail. A common tactic is to offer a check made out to the individual for a few dollars. Cashing the check gives you the money – and also signs you up for some kind of program with a monthly or annual charge.

Of course, the Internet also brings a wealth of these offers. A person orders a product over the Internet and receives a “pop-up” offer on their computer with the “free trial offer.”

“Remember, sellers may already have access to charge your credit card or checking account, and they will bill you after the free trial period without any further approval from you,” Miller says. “They count on you forgetting, not noticing the billings, or not noticing if they send you an mail notice that you discard as ‘junk mail’. And, some unscrupulous sellers may start billing you even if you decline the free trial offer.”

Both the Palo Alto County Sheriff’s Office and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office urge area residents not to be trapped by “Free Trial Offers”

First, reject the free trial offers unless you are absolutely sure it is something you will use. Make if very clear to telephone solicitors that you are declining their offers. Don’t cash checks mailed to you that trick you into signing up for an offer and paying for it.

Secondly, always examine your credit card bill every month, along with your checking account statement and phone bills. Always watch for unauthorized charges and dispute them at once, and do so in writing to protect your rights.

Finally, watch your mail very carefully. In many cases, cancellation offers look just like junk mail and can be easily discarded.

For more information on consumer awareness, contact the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division in Des Moines at 515-281-5926 or visit them online at: www.IowaAttorneyGeneral.org