There are a lot of ways that businesses squeak through the door of legally sufficient, while staying far outside the realm of generally fair. One of the areas that comes up repeatedly as a source of customer discontent is the free trial offer tricks companies pull on unsuspecting consumers.
Free Trial Offer Scam
The free trial offer scam generally relies on a disconnect between what the legally agreed upon terms in the fine print state, and the general understanding that a reasonable person has about what a free trial is.
For most people, a free trial means that you get to try something out for free. Everyone knows that there is no such thing as a free lunch, however. Most people understand that the point of the free trial is to get you to sign up for the paid version going forward. What most people don’t notice, is that they actually already signed up for the paid version when they agreed to the free trial.
In other words, you aren’t really getting a free trial. What you are really doing is signing up for a full subscription with the first month free, and a limited free cancellation period.
That doesn’t sound as good does it? No wonder companies bend over backwards to make sure it sounds like a free test instead.
The trick works like this:
- Sign up for free trial
- Give a credit card number — often, the real purpose of this is hidden under some sort of carefully crafted impression that is necessary for “verification” or to “prevent fraud.”
- Do as much as legally possible to keep
suckercustomer from noticing that part of the agreement for the free trial is that they will automatically be billed to continue on using the paid service.
Most free trials are for one month, or 30 days. On one hand, this sounds like a reasonable amount of time to use a service to see if you like it. On the other hand, this is about the amount of time it takes for someone to lose track of something and forget to cancel. Remember that next time you think about how great that free month will be.
The worst offenders charge for a whole year at once and make that charge non-refundable. In other words, that one month free trial can turn into a one year paid subscription with a simple missed date. The most unscrupulous companies make it hard to cancel during the trial period so that even if you do remember, you might not get it cancelled anyway. Others “helpfully” suggest that you keep using your trial benefits right up to the last minute in hopes that you’ll slip up and forget to cancel later.
Technically, none of this is illegal. All of the details are dutifully explained in fine print somewhere, and by excepting the free month, or whatever, you must say that you understand and agree to all of the fine print.
How To Avoid Free Trial Scams
The best way to avoid a free trial offer scam is to skip it.
If you don’t need the service, or there is no way you are ever going to use the paid service, no matter what the free trial is like, ask yourself what you are getting out of the free trial that makes a potentially costly headache worth it. Do you actually want or need the service offered? If not, just don’t sign up for the free trial.
The easiest way to know whether or not to sign up for a free offer is to remember it isn’t a free offer, it is a subscription with one month free. Now do you want to sign up?
If you really do have a reason to try something out, here is how to avoid free trial offer scams:
- Read all the fine print. Pay particular attention to when and how you have to cancel to avoid being charged.
- Do not give a credit card number. — It is easier to ignore a bill than to deal with a charge on your credit card.
- Use a limited credit card number. — If you must give a credit card number, provided a limited one. Many credit card companies allow card users to create a temporary card number for use. Often, there can be either a time limit, use limit, or a money limit, or all three. Generate a temporary number and set it to expire as soon as possible. Also, set the limit to a low amount, $1 if possible. Then, use up the amount or number of charges before the trial offer expires and the charge kicks in. That way, the charge won’t go through.
- NEVER give a bank account number — Bank account access is a terrible idea. Not only do you not have the same rights as with a credit card, but the damage caused can be even greater. That subscription charge will not only take your money, but might leave you with a lower balance than you thought, and plenty of overdraft fees to boot. While you can easily cancel a card, closing a bank account can be a big ordeal, especially if you have other accounts and services linked to that account.
- Set an alarm or appointment — Put an appointment in your calendar and set another one online or electronically reminding you to cancel BEFORE the deadline. Cancel at least a few days in advance to avoid any nasty surprises or complications.
Legitimate Free Trial Offers
Legit free trial offers do exist. Most of these do not ask for a payment amount and will cancel your membership or subscription automatically if you don’t renew. In this case, the worst that can happen is that you might get calls or emails “reminding” you about the great service you didn’t sign up for. At least it won’t cost you.
Even in this case, be sure you read all the fine print and make sure you aren’t giving up something important to you.
Use common sense and watch out for the common tricks and you can enjoy the benefits of freebies and try out new services you might enjoy.