For centuries, consumers have believed when they were told something was free that it really was. Not always true in today's world. Free trial offers are used by many companies to sell everything from books to CDs, from magazines to Internet access. Free trial offers can be a great way to try out new products or services without making a long-term commitment. You should be aware, however, that by accepting a free trial offer, you might be agreeing to buy additional products and services, if you do not cancel within a specified period of time.
It's called negative option marketing and according to the Federal Trade Commission, negative option marketing is a term used to "broadly refer to a category of commercial transactions in which the seller interprets a customer's failure to take an affirmative action, either to reject an offer or cancel an agreement, as affirmative assent to be charged for goods or services."
Before you accept a free trial offer, be sure you know what your obligations will be. For example, you may have to contact the company to cancel -- during the trial period -- to avoid receiving goods or services or to avoid paying for what you have already received. By not canceling, you may be agreeing to let the company enroll you in a membership, subscription or service contract and to charge the fees to your credit card.
Pay close attention to the material terms advertisers use. According to the law, companies must clearly and prominently disclose the material terms of their trial offers before you give your consent. Material terms may include:
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How much time you have to cancel before you incur charges.
The fact that by accepting the trial offer, you are actually agreeing to be enrolled in a membership, subscription or service contract or agreeing to pay for additional products and services if you do not cancel within the trial period.
The cost or range of costs of goods or services you will receive if you do not cancel during the trial period.
How to cancel during the trial period.
Whether you will be charged a nonrefundable membership fee if you do not cancel within the trial period.
Whether fees will be charged automatically to the credit card you used to buy other goods or services.
Free trial offers are promoted through all kinds of ways: newspaper and magazine ads, TV and radio commercials, direct mail, phone and online. In print ad offers, the material terms may appear in fine print as a footnote at the bottom of a page or on the back of the offer. To protect yourself, read the entire offer carefully before you decide whether it is a good deal for you. When offers are made orally -- whether by radio, TV or on the phone -- listen carefully to the message. If you do not understand the details, ask the caller to repeat the terms and conditions as many times as it takes until you understand. Or, ask them to send you the terms and conditions in writing. Never give into pressure to agree to a deal.
When ordering online, don't click too fast. Review the order form. Look for pre-checked boxes. You may be giving permission to send you more products you'll have to pay for if you don't cancel, or you may be agreeing to a strict cancellation policy and not know it.
The BBB suggests you ask the following questions:
Is the free trial offer related to a membership, subscription or extended service contract?
Do I have to contact the company to avoid receiving more merchandise or services?
Who do I contact to cancel?
Will I receive other products with the free item? If so, will I have to pay for them or send them back if I do not want them? How long do I have to decide before incurring a charge?
Is there a membership fee? If so, is it refundable?
Will you automatically bill my credit card for anything?
Who is offering the trial, you or another company? What is the name and address of the company?
Be sure to research any company with the BBB prior to placing an order but if you do experience a problem with a free trial offer, try to resolve it with the seller first. If you are dissatisfied with the response, contact the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org) or the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov).
Kelvin Collins is president/CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Central Georgia and the CSRA Inc., serving 41 counties in Middle Georgia and the Central Savannah River area. This tips column is provided through the local BBB and the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Questions or complaints about a specific company or charity should be referred directly to the BBB at 478-742-7999, www.bbb.org or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.