Feds Go After Online ‘Free Trials’ That Aren’t

credit cards

(ABC News)–A group of California-based marketers who pitched online “free trials” of skin care products has been permanently barred from using the deceptive marketing and billing practices — some you might’ve seen pop up online.

A series of court orders targeted 29 marketers who sold Auravie, Dellure, LéOr Skincare and Miracle Face Kit products online, ordering them to shape up and to “surrender virtually all of their assets to the FTC, totaling over $2.7 million,” the FTC said.

The Federal Trade Commission, which brought the lawsuit, said that the marketers’ “risk-free trials” weren’t really free because consumers got stuck in ongoing subscriptions that charged hefty monthly fees.

The scheme worked like this: Consumers clicked on the online ads and provided a credit or debit card for shipping and handling – typically $4.95 or less — but they usually didn’t understand that by doing so, they were also agreeing to continue getting more skin care products, every month, for $97.88, the FTC said.

In addition, the 10-day free trial period began the moment the order was placed – not when the product was received – meaning some consumers didn’t get their trial product until after the 10 days had passed or nearly passed.

Consumers who tried to cancel and get their money back often were told it was too late to return the product, an FTC staff attorney told ABC News. Even if the container was not opened and the company agreed to take it back, the consumer would still owe a restocking fee.

Sales involving continuing monthly charges aren’t illegal, as long as the consumer understands what is happening, the FTC attorney said. The trouble occurs when there’s no prominent disclosure.

It’s exactly what happened to Chicago resident Christie Serritella, who wrote to The ABC News Fixer after she clicked on a “free trial” ad for eye gel and face cream that appeared on Facebook. CLICK HERE to see how we were able to get that one FIXED.

Do YOU have a consumer problem? Maybe The Fixer can help! Submit your problems at ABCNews.com/Fixer.

The FTC has pledged to continue attacking “scams that rely on supposed ‘free trial’ offers and unauthorized credit card charges,” according to Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Meanwhile, here’s some advice:

– Check the record of any online “free trial” offer by searching the name and the word “scam” to see what other consumers are saying. The FTC attorney says this can yield quick red flags about suspicious offers.

– Read the terms and conditions of any offer before signing up.

– Watch for pre-checked boxes on any online offer. You might be agreeing to something you didn’t want.

– If you have a problem, dispute it immediately with your credit card issuer (you may need to be persistent), and if you don’t get satisfaction, file a complaint at FTC.gov.

— The ABC News Fixer

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