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

Michelle Singletary on

"I hope we can ultimately get the money back," she said. "Fortunately the $380 won't make or break my mother, but many other seniors aren't so lucky."

Yet another reader said her 86-year-old mother ended up being billed for $182.87 when she thought she was only authorizing a $5.99 shipping fee.

"I happened to be visiting her when one evening, in tears, she showed me her credit card statement," Carol wrote. "My mom is awesome. She is a retired teacher. She still drives, has no cognitive issues, walks every day, and is caring for my father who has metastatic colon cancer. She just wanted something to help her skin and make her feel better."

The Federal Trade Commission has brought a number of actions involving this bait-and-switch scheme. In March, the agency charged a group of online marketers with deceiving customers into signing up for subscriptions for cooking gadgets, golf equipment, and access to related online services. Consumers also thought they were providing their credit card information to just cover shipping and handling but instead they were charged for products and services they hadn't ordered. And return, refund and cancellation policies were buried in pages of fine print that people could only reach through a tiny hyperlink, the FTC said.

"If a 'free' trial offer looks appealing, look online to see if there are any complaints about the company," said FTC spokesman Frank Dorman. "If you're filling out a form with pre-checked boxes, uncheck them, and read the cancellation policy so you'll know when to cancel to avoid charges. And check your credit card statements to be sure you weren't billed for something you didn't order."

This is all good advice.

My advice: Avoid all free offers that require you to hand over your credit or debit card number. They want you to try their product? Fine. Then they pay for delivery. "Free" for me is a code word for "watch out!" Because there's always a price to pay.


Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook ( Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group



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