Free trial offer complaints, scam reports climb


DAYTON – With many people staying at home due to COVID-19 and spending more time on the internet, chances are they will encounter bogus “free trial offer” scams.

While celebrities, credit card companies and government agencies have increased their efforts to fight deceptive free trial offer scams, victims continue to lose millions of dollars to fraudsters.

A December 2018 Better Business Bureau study described how free trial offers often use celebrity endorsement ads on social media and the internet to attract consumers to deceptive websites that charge a small shipping and handling fee, usually $4.99 or less, for a “free” trial of beauty or health products like skin creams or weight loss pills. The true cost of these free trials – ongoing monthly subscription plans – is buried in small print and behind links, if disclosed at all.

Free trial offers are not illegal. Video streaming services often offer free trial offers.

Scammers now are using free trial offers to take advantage of the desire for streaming services. BBB has received Scam Tracker reports that scammers are using social media to offer bogus free Netflix services.

To receive a fake pass, those clicking on a link may be directed to provide personal information and send the offer to friends. Scammers are likely phishing for personal and banking information or to distribute malware.

BBB urges consumers to:

• Examine online free trial offers carefully

• Resist being swayed by the phony use of a well-known name

• Report free trial offer scams to BBB Scam Tracker

• Report losses to credit card companies. Victims should call the customer service number on the back of the credit card used to ask for their money back.

Although complaints to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center decreased somewhat in 2019, free trial complaints and reports to BBB for the U.S. and Canada increased. Because many victims don’t complain to BBB or to law enforcement, these numbers represent a trend rather than the total size of the problem.

Free trial offer fraudsters have developed new tactics. Previously, they usually sent shoppers to bogus generic consumer news articles or fake websites with familiar sounding names to make their pitch. Now they often copy the look of major media outlet websites, such as The Today Show, Good Morning America and others, presumably to increase the credibility of the claims about the products.

Scammers also have expanded their efforts to use social media to draw in victims. An October 2019 investigation by Buzzfeed detailed one operation based in San Diego that convinced people to rent out their personal Facebook accounts to the fraudsters who used the accounts to place free trial offer ads.

Credit cards continue to be scammers’ payment method of choice for free trial offer scams.

Since BBB’s study, Mastercard and Visa have announced new policies to combat free trial offer scams. Mastercard now requires merchants to get cardholder approval before billing after the conclusion of the trial. They also must provide receipts, contact and cancellation information. Visa adopted similar requirements that became effective on April 18. Both companies continue to encourage victims to dispute questionable charges with the bank that issued their card.

Those who have lost money to deceptive free trials need to challenge the charges on their credit cards and file complaints so they can educate others.

• Complain to the company directly. If that is not successful, call the customer service number on the back of the credit card to complain to the bank.

• Report suspicious, confusing or misleading ads to BBB AdTruth at bbb.org/ad-truth.

• File a complaint about free trial offers with the BBB at bbb.org or bbb.org/scamtracker, Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov or 877-FTC-Help or the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.