It was supposed to be a risk-free offer, a chance to sample a skin-care product.
But the lure of something free turned into financial frustration for the many victims of face cream fraud.
It works like this. You see an online ad or you get an email to test a cream that is supposed to reduce wrinkles or age spots. All you have to do is pay for the shipping. Seems fair, right?
Yet there's nothing fair about this transaction. The promised free item is bait to get people to unwittingly sign up for a subscription to receive a monthly supply of the face cream, which keeps coming at about $90 a jar or bottle. The company assures customers that they can cancel at any time after a 14-day trial.
However, the situation gets funky fast. Even before the trial period is up, consumers start to see charges on their credit card, or bank account if they paid by a debit card. They are confused. They hadn't authorized any purchases. They don't recall seeing any language saying that by accepting the "free" sample they were automatically signed up for a subscription service with recurring charges every month.
Recently, I heard from many victims of this scheme after I wrote about my godmother falling for it. There were heartbreaking stories of folks — all elderly women — fighting with their banks or credit card lenders to get the nefarious charges reversed.
These cases involve "negative option" offers in which a consumer agrees to try something out for a limited time or regularly receive a product or service until they say, "no more" — that's where the negative part comes in. The billing only stops if you take action to cancel.
Negative option offers aren't illegal, but the law requires companies to clearly and conspicuously disclose the terms. My problem with negative-option offers is that often people forget to cancel or, worse, they can't stop the automatic billing even when they try. Crooked companies make it difficult to cancel by not clearly disclosing how or by making it hard to find contact information. Or, they impose cancellation conditions so strict it's difficult to get out of the deal.
"I was also caught up in the scam after answering an ad for a free face cream that I saw on the internet," wrote Sarah from Maryland. "I agreed to pay the shipping charge, and suddenly found unauthorized charges of $89.95 and $92.92 on my credit card statement. I had to fight with my Visa card provider for months to have the charges reversed."
Patricia from Maryland wrote that her 81-year-old mother was conned.
"I hope we can ultimately get the money back," she said. "Fortunately the $380 won't make or break my mother, but many other seniors aren't so lucky."
Yet another reader said her 86-year-old mother ended up being billed for $182.87 when she thought she was only authorizing a $5.99 shipping fee.
"I happened to be visiting her when one evening, in tears, she showed me her credit card statement," Carol wrote. "My mom is awesome. She is a retired teacher. She still drives, has no cognitive issues, walks every day, and is caring for my father who has metastatic colon cancer. She just wanted something to help her skin and make her feel better."
The Federal Trade Commission has brought a number of actions involving this bait-and-switch scheme. In March, the agency charged a group of online marketers with deceiving customers into signing up for subscriptions for cooking gadgets, golf equipment and access to related online services. Consumers also thought they were providing their credit card information to just cover shipping and handling but instead they were charged for products and services they hadn't ordered. And return, refund and cancellation policies were buried in pages of fine print that people could only reach through a tiny hyperlink, the FTC said.
"If a 'free' trial offer looks appealing, look online to see if there are any complaints about the company," said FTC spokesman Frank Dorman. "If you're filling out a form with pre-checked boxes, uncheck them, and read the cancellation policy so you'll know when to cancel to avoid charges. And check your credit card statements to be sure you weren't billed for something you didn't order."
This is all good advice.
My advice: Avoid all free offers that require you to hand over your credit or debit card number. They want you to try their product? Fine. Then they pay for delivery. "Free" for me is a code word for "watch out!" Because there's always a price to pay.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at SingletaryM or Facebook at facebook.com/MichelleSingletary.