Consumer alert: 'Free Trials' aren't always free

by: Robin Taylor Updated:

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None - PITTSBURGH -- "Free" offers are incredibly enticing, and you might ask yourself, "What have I got to lose?" But Americans are losing millions of dollars to deceptive marketing. Target 11 Consumer Investigator Robin Taylor uncovers the dangers.

Whether it is whiter teeth, a flatter stomach or shinier hair, these offers play on our weaknesses, and many of us have fallen for them.

What these companies do is lure us with a "free trial" and then hide the terms and conditions in the fine print.

"Those are the magic words, 'free.' When I hear free I get excited," said Gillian Ward, a stay-at-home mom in Wexford.

When she saw an ad for a "free trial" of an Acai Berry weight loss product, she fell for it.

"When they asked for my credit card number, I should have known, but that was for the shipping and handling, little did I know that they would be charging my credit card every month," said Ward.

By the time she realized they had taken money out of her bank account, she had lost almost $500.

"We know of hundreds of thousands of people that have fallen for these types of offers," said Robert Anguizola, a lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C.

Anguizola says some marketers make it very difficult for consumers to get their money back.

"I wouldn't consider these offers truly free because in many instances they cost consumers a lot of money," said Anguizola.

Another trick is to make the ads look like they're news reports, with phony endorsements from real news organizations, and even celebrities like Oprah.

"If you're looking at a newspaper or magazine, and you see that it looks like a news article, if it's actually an advertisement, look around the borders, and it may tell you advertisement," said Andrew Richards, a postal inspector in Pittsburgh.

Gillian wasn't about to conned out of hundreds of dollars, so she fought back.

"I had to call about 10 times and I had to call my bank. My bank fought for me. I had to fill out all kinds of paperwork. It took about two months to get my money back," said Ward.

If you sign up for a "free" sample and then end up getting more than you bargained for, ask for a refund, and then take action by disputing the charges and filing a complaint.

"If you feel that you're being defrauded, that's the time you should be contacting the postal inspection service," said Richards.

According to the FTC, just because a consumer doesn't read the fine print doesn't mean that they haven't been deceived and it hasn't been a violation of the law.

If you see charges on your credit card statement that you didn't authorize, dispute them. If you do it soon enough, there's a good chance you'll get some if not all of your money back.