How free is that free trial?

Together with the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA), we are reminding consumers to think carefully about ‘free trials’ that may end up costing more than they think.   

Consumers often sign-up to an ongoing paid subscription in order to take advantage of a “free trial” or promotional offer. Unless cancelled, these subscriptions will continue after the trial period has ended, and can eventually end up costing consumers significant amounts of money. And, in the current climate of lockdown, with many of us spending more time at home and perhaps online, it is as important as ever that the free trials and promotions we see or are targeted with are fair.

We are here to protect people from ads that are potentially harmful, offensive or misleading, and part of that includes ensuring that the nature of promotional offers and advertised subscriptions are clear in their content and presentation. No one should see an ad that promises something for ‘free’, only to find out later on that they have unwittingly entered into an ongoing subscription plan and paid out lots of money because of it.

To help consumers avoid falling into potential ‘subscription traps’, we’re setting out some questions they should bear in mind before taking advantage of an offer.  Ask yourself:

  • What am I agreeing to in order to claim this offer? 
  • Is the trial really ‘free’? Or could I have money taken from my bank account or card?  
  • Do I have to provide my payment details? If yes – stop and ask why.
  • If there can be a charge, do I know how much it is and when the payment will be taken? Also, what exactly will I get in exchange for that charge?
  • What must I do to stop the payment and by when? 
  • If I do get charged – what does the company say about giving me my money back?
  • If I do get charged and do nothing, what happens next? Might the company take more payments in the future? 

Subscriptions themselves aren’t bad by default. But depending on the answers to the questions above, you may decide that a particular product or service isn’t really for you.

If you do see an ad that you think could mislead people into a ‘subscription trap’, you should let us know using our complaint form and we’ll look into it.

And while we’re offering these tips to consumers, we also want to stress that the responsibility lies with businesses to get their ads clear, fair, and not misleading. To help them do that, CAP offers a wealth of advice on promotional marketing and keeping your 'free trials' trial free, setting out exactly what businesses can do to stick to the ad rules. 

We have an upcoming virtual training session available to anyone in sales or marketing on 19 May covering promotions, discounts and competitions.

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