Today Citizens Advice reported on the findings of research they carried out into internet offers, in particular for slimming pills, which unknowingly tie people into costly subscriptions.

We raised awareness of this type of ‘scam’ back in May as part of Scam Awareness Month, an initiative run by Citizens Advice and Trading Standards. A misleading ‘free’ trial offers is where you sign up to a product before you buy it. But what starts as a free trial – or low cost trial – might end up costing you lots of money.

Often, the kinds of free trial offers we receive concerns about are for anti-wrinkle creams, slimming supplements or muscle building enhancements, but whatever the product all free trials eventually end. And usually, if you don't want to buy what you've tried, you need to take action to cancel it before the trial is up. If you don't, you may be tied into buying more products.

But some dishonest businesses make it difficult to cancel by hiding key information in the terms and conditions, or automatically checking boxes on the online sign-up form which ties you into an ongoing subscription.

Or, you may have handed over your credit card details so that you could pay for postage and packaging, without realising further changes might later be applied.

ASA action

We’ve taken action against a number of companies for failing to make clear in their advertising what costs are charged when a ‘free’ trial offer comes to an end.

While most advertisers we work with take steps to bring their advertising into line, there are a number of advertisers in the ‘free’ trial market, who continue to break the rules. These companies are based outside the UK, which makes the enforcement of our rulings difficult and limits the range of sanctions we have to put a stop to such practices.

That’s why it’s important to raise awareness of the issue, so you can protect yourself by knowing how to watch out for a scam.

Here are some ASA rulings that serve as good examples of the kinds of free trial offers that have been misleading or unfair:

How to protect yourself

So how can you avoid the costs that might be hiding in free trials?

  • Research the company. Look online to see what other people are saying about the company and its services beforehand. Other consumers might tell you if they’ve had a bad experience and some of the ‘tricks’ to watch out for and avoid.

  • Look out for any sign of hidden prices. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you’re asked to hand over your bank details then it’s highly likely there will be a cost involved beyond postage and which mean that the offer isn’t free.

  • Read the terms and conditions. Lots of us don’t like having to do this, but it’s important to read them. If you can’t find them or if you don’t understand them it’s best not to sign up.

  • Watch out for pre-checked boxes. If you’re signing up for a free trial lookout for already checked boxes. It might be that the company has already signed you up to buy the product after the trial.

  • Check to see if you need to cancel the ‘order’. Free trials usually have an expiry date, and some require that you cancel your ‘order’ within a certain period. It’s a good idea to mark your calendar so you can avoid making any unwanted payments.

  • Read your bank statements. This will help you spot any unusual payments. If you are then contact your bank straight away.

Reporting the problem:

The ASA can only take action against UK based advertisers. The majority of these kinds of ‘free trial’ offers originate abroad and are often run by bogus operators. There is, therefore, a limit to the action we can take.

1. You can report potential scams to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040
2. You can report misleading slimming pill firms to Trading Standards via the Citizens Advice consumer service on:
03454 04 05 06 (or 03454 04 05 05 for Welsh language)

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