Free Trial Offers Can Cost You

You’ve probably seen ads online, on TV, or on social media for subscription offers. They could be for anything from beauty creams and dietary supplements to snacks and magazines. Some say you can try the subscription for free, but it might not be true. Some will auto-renew if you don’t cancel first, but you may not know that. Sometimes you’re signed up for a subscription without even knowing it. Learn the ins and outs of subscriptions to save yourself money, time, and aggravation. Many subscription offers are tempting, especially if they offer a free trial period before you commit. But free trial offers can be tricky, and there’s often a catch.

Here are three things to know about free trial offers:

  1. If you don’t cancel on time, you’ll be charged. Usually, you have to give your credit card number for a “free trial.” That way, the company can charge you if you don’t cancel before the trial period ends. Dishonest businesses make it tough to cancel, and will keep charging you — even if you don’t want the product or subscription anymore.
  2. If you have to pay for shipping or fees to get your “free” trial, it’s not really free. The offer may say you can try a product free — but you have to pay a small fee for shipping costs or something else. You may think those few dollars are no big deal, but after the trial ends, you might see higher charges than expected on your credit card — or charges for products you didn’t want or order.
  3. That online ad you saw may not be from the company selling the product. Companies hire affiliate marketers to promote a product and create many ads you see online for free trials. Affiliate marketers get paid every time you click on their ad. Some dishonest affiliate marketers put out ads with exaggerated claims or misleading information to get you to click.

Before you sign up for a free trial offer

Find the terms and conditions for the offer. The terms and conditions should tell you exactly what you’re agreeing to:

  • The length of the trial period
  • How and when to cancel if you don’t want to continue with a full subscription after the trial period
  • If you can't find this information or can't understand exactly what you're agreeing to, don't sign up. Sometimes, return and cancellation policies on free trial offers are so strict that it can be almost impossible to do.

Research the company online. See what other people are saying about the company's free trial offers, but make sure to compare online reviews from a wide variety of websites. User reviews can give you a good idea about the offer you’re considering. Search for the company’s name with the words “scam” or “complaint.” Complaints from other customers can tip you off to "catches" that might come with the trial.

Look for information on how you can cancel future shipments or services. If you don't want the product or service anymore, how do you cancel? Is that process clear to you? Can you skip shipments if you don’t want to fully cancel, but don’t need the shipment or service as often? Do you have a limited time to respond?

Watch out for pre-checked boxes. If you sign up for a free trial online, look for boxes that are already checked for you. That checkmark may give the company permission to continue charging you past the free trial, sign you up for more products that you have to pay for, or share your information with others. Make sure to uncheck a box if you don’t agree with what it says.

After you sign up for a free trial

Mark your calendar. Your free trial offer has a time limit. Once the deadline to cancel passes, you may be on the hook for more products or services and more payments.

Monitor your credit and debit card statements. That way you'll know right away if you're being charged for something you didn't order.

If you are charged without your consent, and the company will not refund your money, dispute the charge (also called a “chargeback”) with your credit or debit card company right away.

Credit: Federal Trade Commission