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Consumer Alert

'Free' trial offers always have a catch

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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. It could have been there in small print. 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. Signing up people using a so-called negative option is certainly a shady way of doing business. Federal law prohibits the practice, with some exceptions, including that the terms are clearly disclosed before getting the consumer's billing information, that the consumer consents to the arrangement, and that 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. And that's just what happened in this case.

This isn't something 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.

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 Ė or you donít get a promised refund, it's time to contact the state attorney general, Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau and let them know you're not fooling around. You should also contact your credit card company to let them know you did not specifically authorize the charge and ask them to reverse it.

As a general rule, assume that when you're offered something for free there's likely going to be catch -- unless they put it in your hand, no questions asked. Once you're asked for a form of payment, watch out.

And, check out the amusing video on the subject produced by the Federal Trade Commission.

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