By Herb Weisbaum
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/27/2006 4:52:12 PM ET 2006-09-27T20:52:12

We all like to get something for nothing, which is why so many ads these days use the “free trial offer” pitch. You can’t listen to the radio, watch TV or go online without being bombarded with free offers for everything from magazines and DVD movies to diet pills and tooth whiteners.

All you have to do is pay for the shipping and handling. That may seem fair, but beware! You could be in for a nasty surprise.

“Often free is just another word for fee,” says Joe Rideout, a spokesman for Consumer Action, a San Francisco consumer group. “If you are asked for your credit card or debit card information, it’s probably not free.”

Once they have your account number a company can bill you for purchases you don’t realize you authorized by accepting the trial offer.

That’s what happened to Bill Lucas of Cattlettsburg, Ky. The pop-up ad that appeared on his computer screen said he could try a tooth whitener called WhiteOverNite for free, if he just paid $4.87 for shipping and handling.

“It sounded like a good deal,” Lucas told me. So he decided to order some for his daughter.

Shortly after the “free” sample arrived, Lucas spotted a $69 charge for WhiteOverNite on his credit card statement. He tried contacting the Ontario, Calif., company but could never reach them.

Soon another box of whitener arrived and another $69 charge appeared on his statement. A slip inside that second shipment said this was going to be an ongoing charge that would be billed every month.

I asked Lucas if there was any indication on the Web site that by accepting the free trial offer he was agreeing to make future purchases. “No way,” he said. “I didn’t order this.”

Lucas is one of 615 people who have complained to the Los Angeles Better Business Bureau about WhiteOverNite in the last three years. Because the company has not responded to those complaints, it’s rated an “F” for unsatisfactory.

I tried contacting the company for a comment and got an e-mail back from Jan Yoss, a Los Angeles attorney whose firm serves as legal counsel to WhiteOverNite.

"White Over Nite’s terms and conditions of its sales are clearly delineated on its site," he said in the note. "The customer is requested to identify in multiple places when placing his or her order that he or she understands these terms and conditions of the sale."

He also said the company "has not received a 'huge' number of complaints."

'Free' diet pills were costly
The Utah Better Business Bureau has been flooded with complaints about two companies in that state selling a variety of diet products. Ultralife Fitness ran the Web sites trugenixhoodia.com and trugenixfitness.com. JAB Ventures had numerous sites, including hoodiaforfree.com, hoodia66.com and leanlifepm.com.

The Ultralife Fitness sites offered a “free” bottle of pills for a small shipping charge. Unhappy customers tell the Better Business Bureau that after they got their free pills, they received another bottle and were billed $99.90.

The Utah BBB says Ultralife Fitness responded to most complaints by saying, “The customer should have read the terms and conditions that state they have 30 days to try out the product, and if they do not cancel within the 30 days, they would be auto-shipped an additional bottle and charged for the bottle.”

Jane Driggs, President and CEO of the Utah Better Business Bureau, tells me most consumers didn’t see that disclosure because it was at the bottom of the page beneath the “Click Here to Complete Your Order!” button and was easily missed.

“It was very misleading,” Driggs says. “Consumers just thought they were getting free bottles of the pills.”

Officials of the company did not return my call seeking comment, but their site has been changed to prominently display the terms of the deal — that by accepting the free 14-day supply, customers are automatically enrolled in their “60-Day Masters Program” that will cost $99.41 unless canceled within 14 days.

In May, Ultralife Fitness and JAB Ventures signed settlement agreements with the Utah Division of Consumer Protection. Both companies agreed to pay full refunds to every consumer who had already complained and any others who file valid complaints through May of 2007.

Strings attached
It is legal for companies to use a free offer that obligates you to make future purchases. “But if there are conditions attached to a free offer, they must be clearly and conspicuously disclosed,” says James Kolm of the Federal Trade Commission. Of course, that doesn’t always happen.

Even well-known companies have been charged with misleading people with free trial offers. This summer Microsoft settled a lawsuit filed by California’s attorney general for a promotion it ran three years ago at some Best Buy stores. The promotion offered people who bought a new computer three free months of MSN Internet service. Those who didn’t cancel within the 90-day period were then billed for the service.

As a result of this settlement, Microsoft has agreed to give customers written reminders 30 days before the end of any free trial period longer than three months.

(MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

I think all companies offering a free trial period with fees attached should be required to send you at least one reminder notice that your trial period is almost up and you are about to run up charges. Most don’t. Why should they? If you forget about that date and miss the cancellation period, they just made a sale.

How do you protect yourself?
Here’s what I do. To me “free” means no charge, no payment and no need to provide any account numbers that can result in being billed.  If they want my credit card, debit card or bank account number for any reason, then in my book it’s not free, and I won’t have anything to do with them.

If you are tempted and want to try one of these offers, make sure to use a credit card and not a debit card. Debit cards allow the seller to take money directly from your checking account, raising the possibility that you will bounce a check and reducing your chances of getting a refund.

If you’re been burned by a free trial offer you should file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and your state’s consumer protection or attorney general’s office. They may not be able to handle your specific problem, but these agencies tend to launch investigations when they get a lot of complaints about a company. You should also file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

Next week: Cash that check and you’ve signed up for a free offer that has costly strings attached.

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