By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/15/2009 12:07:38 PM ET 2009-10-15T16:07:38

Tracy Howard is very careful about using her credit card online. She only shops with companies she knows are reputable. One day while surfing the Web, she spotted an ad for a “free” sample of tooth whitener.

“It was on a legitimate Web site, so I thought it was a legitimate offer,” Howard, from Bothell, Wash., said.

It wasn’t. Howard paid $5 for shipping. She put the charge on her credit card.

The Dazzle White arrived in about two weeks; a little silver tube with an applicator brush. No invoice. No instructions. But that didn’t really matter, she says, because the tube was empty.

“I figured the joke was on me.”

Howard wasn’t laughing when she saw a charge for $58 from Dazzle White on her next credit card statement and another $58 charge the month after that.

By requesting the free sample, Howard had signed up (without knowing it) for monthly shipments of the product.

Dazzle White, which is based in Alberta, Canada, has at least a dozen Web sites, including DazzleWhiteNow and DazzleWhitePro. The Better Business Bureau in Edmonton gives the company an “F” rating. The bureau’s reliability report says most people who pay the shipping don’t even receive the free sample.

The company did not respond to my e-mails requesting a comment.

“This is a huge online problem right now,” says Alison Southwick with the Council of Better Business Bureaus. “The number of complaints is exploding.”

In the last year, more than 1,100 people across North America have complained to the Better Business Bureau about a free-trial teeth whitener promotion.

“They think they’re signing up for a no obligation offer and they get billed as much as $80 a month for these products that keep arriving at their door,” Southwick explains. “They’re also billed $50 to $60 a month for other products and services they never agreed to buy.”

Bogus free trial offers are used to sell everything from worthless work-at-home opportunities to questionable nutritional supplements. For the past few years, numerous companies have used this pitch to push Acai (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) berry and Resveratrol weight loss products, as well as colon cleansers.

Stop already!
Sherry Marshall of Seattle got sucker-punched when she responded to an online ad offering a free trial of an Acai berry weight loss product. Marshall was willing to pay the $4 shipping and handling.

She had no idea the company, FWM Laboratories of Hollywood, Fla., would send her additional bottles of the stuff and bill her $88 for each of them.

Since the shipments came without invoices, she had not idea how to contact the company to stop them. Luckily, she spotted one of the company’s ads that listed a phone number. Marshall says she spent 20 minutes arguing with the customer service operator. Even after threatening legal action, the bottles kept coming.

In all, Marshall received six unwanted bottles of the Acai berry pills. Unable to get a refund from the company, she disputed the fraudulent charges with her credit card company and got them removed from her bill.

The Better Business Bureau has received a record number of complaints – more than five-thousand – about FWM Labs, which sells both Acai berry and Resveratrol diet products. The Bureau gives the company an “F” rating.

I called the company for a comment. The operator who answered the toll-free customer service line said she didn’t know how I could reach the owner or anyone in management. So I wrote to the various e-mail addresses listed on FWM’s Website. All of my e-mail bounced back.

State prosecutors get tough
The attorneys general in several states are going after the companies running these deceptive free trial ads.

In August, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued promoters of Acai berry and Resveratrol products. The attorneys general in Arizona, Texas and Florida have already reached agreements with some of the biggest offenders.

Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna says these bogus free trial offers are often difficult, if not impossible, to cancel.

“One outfit we’ve been investigating says you can’t cancel over the phone; you need to do it on the web. But you have to go through page after page on their Website to figure out how to cancel online.”

The bottom line
Marketers know “free” moves product. Those “risk-free” trial offers are very tempting. Paying a couple of bucks to handle the shipping seems fair enough.

Stop! Before you accept the offer and give them your credit card number, read the fine print. Look for that catch. It may be at the bottom of the page in the fine print terms and conditions. By accepting the free sample are you making a long-term commitment to buy this and other products?

You should also check out the company with the Better Business Bureau. It only takes a few seconds. Many of the people who got burned by these deals could have avoided a lot of grief if they’d just done that.

No matter what, never use a debit card for any online transaction.

Finally, if you have been taken, complain. Write your state’s attorney general or consumer protection office. File a complaint with the BBB and with the Federal Trade Commission.

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