Free face cream? You shouldn’t take the bait.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - MICHELLE SIN­GLE­TARY michelle.sin­gle­tary@wash­post.com

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.

Last week, 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 stops only 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 86year-old mother ended up be­ing billed for $182.87 when she thought she was au­tho­riz­ing only 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 reach only 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,” FTC spokesman Frank Dorman said. “If you’re fill­ing out a form with prechecked 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 may write to Michelle Sin­gle­tary at The Wash­ing­ton Post, 1301 K St. NW, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20071 or michelle.sin­gle­tary@wash­post.com. To read pre­vi­ous Color of Money col­umns, go to wapo.st/ michelle-sin­gle­tary.

Michelle Sin­gle­tary THE COLOR OF MONEY

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