BBB study shows how free trial offers mislead with fake endorsements and surprise charges

THE internet is rife with ads and links leading to pictures of celebrities and “miracle” products that promise easy weight loss, whiter teeth or disappearing wrinkles, notes the Better Business Bureau (BBB). You may be enticed to try these products through a “risk-free” trial: Just enter your name, address and credit card number, and the product will be on its way for only a nominal shipping and handling charge.

An in-depth investigative study by BBB, however, finds that many of these free trial offers are not free. BBB receives complaints from free trial offer victims nearly every day and warns consumers to use extreme caution before agreeing to the offer and entering their credit card number.

The investigative study – “Subscription Traps and Deceptive Free Trials Scam Millions with Misleading Ads and Fake Celebrity Endorsements” – looks at how free trial offers ensnare consumers in so-called “subscription traps” that hook them for expensive shipments of products they did not explicitly agree to buy. It digs into the scope of the problem, who is behind it, and the need for law enforcement and consumer education to address the issue.

Many free trial offers come with fine print, buried on the order page or by a link, that gives consumers only a short period of time to receive, evaluate and return the product to avoid being charged oftentimes $100 or more. In addition, the same hidden information may state that by accepting the offer, you’ve signed up for monthly shipments of the products and such fees will be charged to your credit card. Many people find it difficult to contact the seller to stop recurring charges, halt shipments and get refunds. Such obscure terms in these offers often violate the Canadian Code of Advertising and BBB guidelines on advertising, as do the satisfaction guarantees that are ubiquitous in free trial offers.

The study found that many of the celebrity endorsements in these ads are fake. Dozens of celebrity names are used by these frauds without their knowledge or permission, ranging from Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres to Mike Rowe, Tim Allen and Arlene Dickenson of CBC’s Dragon’s Den. Sometimes the fine print even admits these endorsements are not real.

“Free trial offers relying on deception have infested the internet, especially with social media,” said Danielle Primrose, BBB serving Mainland BC President and CEO. “The people running these scams are counting on consumers to be so dazzled by celebrities and big promises that they fail to read the fine print. It’s imperative that consumers carefully read the terms and conditions of such offers before they take the plunge.”

Free trial offers can be a legitimate way for credible companies to introduce new products, provided that the company is transparent about the offer and its terms. However, fraudsters have turned such offers into a global multi-billion-dollar industry, one that grows every year.

Available data from the US-based Federal Trade Commission (FTC) shows that complaints about “free trials” more than doubled from 2015 to 2017, and BBB has received nearly 37,000 complaints and Scam Tracker reports over the last three years, though not all of these complaints involve monetary loss. In addition, victims in 14 resolved FTC cases collectively lost $1.3 billion, and consumers making reports to BBB lost an average of $186.

An examination of the BBB complaints and reports found that victims span all income and education levels, while a review of complaints to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) from 2015 to 2017 shows a fairly even spread of age ranges. However, the BBB reports show that 72 per cent of victims were female, likely because many free trial offers involve skin care products geared towards women.

Deanna Martin of Calgary lost $368 after signing up for what she thought was a free trial of a “revolutionary skin product” supposedly endorsed by the Dragon’s Den’s Arlene Dickenson. “Nowhere in that initial pitch did they disclose that you’d be charged for the free samples if you don’t call within 14 days to cancel,” she said in her Scam Tracker report. She goes on to say that the customer service rep tried to up-sell her and then refused to refund the cost of the “free” samples.

In Burnaby, Jammy Smith lost almost $1,000 after falling victim to a free trial offer on social media that featured the celebrity, Angelina Jolie. However, she was able to secure a partial refund after filing her complaint to BBB.

FTC data on free trial offers strongly suggests that most of these enterprises operate in the U.S. and Canada, though the companies do sell extensively outside the U.S. and frequently employ overseas credit card processing. A 2017 study by the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) found that the credit card transactions at the center of the scam were processed through banks in 14 countries.

Recommendations from the report:
– BBB urges credit card companies to do more to ensure victims receive chargebacks where key conditions are not adequately disclosed. Because this fraud is dependent on the use of credit cards, more effort is needed to identify and combat deceptive free trial offers employing credit card systems. Also, it would be helpful if they could do more to educate their customers.
– Additional criminal prosecutions of this conduct are needed. The FTC and BBB have done much to address the issue, but do not have the ability to bring criminal charges. Only criminal prosecutions are likely to deter this type of fraud.
– Social media sites should do more to curtail such deceptive advertising.
– International cooperation is needed to combat this fraud. U.S. and Canadian law authorities need more information about victims from other countries. In addition, evidence and other key information may be located in a variety of countries around the world.
– More consumer education is needed from news media and consumer groups like BBB.

What to do if you believe you have been a victim of a free trial offer fraud:
– Complain to the company directly.
– If that is not successful, call the customer service number on the back of your credit card to complain to the bank.
– Complain to
– Report the fraud to
– Report it to Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3
– In Canada, report it to Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (toll free from the US at 1-888-495-8501) and to the Competition Bureau.
– Report it to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or call 877-FTC-Help
– Report suspicious, confusing or misleading ads to BBB Ad Truth.