Color of Money: Be wary of 'free' offers. There's always a price to pay.

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- It was supposed to be a risk-free offer, a chance to sample a skin-care product.

But the lure of something free turned into financial frustration for the many victims of face cream fraud.

It works like this. You see an online ad or you get an email to test a cream that is supposed to reduce wrinkles or age spots. All you have to do is pay for the shipping. Seems fair, right?

Yet there's nothing fair about this transaction. The promised free item is bait to get people to unwittingly sign up for a subscription to receive a monthly supply of the face cream, which keeps coming at about $90 a jar or bottle. The company assures customers that they can cancel at any time after a 14-day trial.

However, the situation gets funky fast. Even before the trial period is up, consumers start to see charges on their credit card, or bank account if they paid by a debit card. They are confused. They hadn't authorized any purchases. They don't recall seeing any language saying that by accepting the "free" sample they were automatically signed up for a subscription service with recurring charges every month.

Last week, I heard from many victims of this scheme after I wrote about my godmother falling for it. There were heartbreaking stories of folks -- all elderly women -- fighting with their banks or credit card lenders to get the nefarious charges reversed.

These cases involve "negative option" offers in which a consumer agrees to try something out for a limited time or regularly receive a product or service until they say, "no more" -- that's where the negative part comes in. The billing only stops if you take action to cancel.

Negative option offers aren't illegal, but the law requires companies to clearly and conspicuously disclose the terms. My problem with negative-option offers is that often people forget to cancel or, worse, they can't stop the automatic billing even when they try. Crooked companies make it difficult to cancel by not clearly disclosing how or by making it hard to find contact information. Or, they impose cancellation conditions so strict it's difficult to get out of the deal.

"I was also caught up in the scam after answering an ad for a free face cream that I saw on the internet," wrote Sarah from Maryland. "I agreed to pay the shipping charge, and suddenly found unauthorized charges of $89.95 and $92.92 on my credit card statement. I had to fight with my Visa card provider for months to have the charges reversed."

Patricia from Maryland wrote that her 81-year-old mother was conned.


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