I’m a bit of a sucker for free stuff – samples at Costco, make-up application at the beauty counter and free skin care products too. I have a feeling I’m not alone….

Yet, there’s a new scam involving free stuff making the rounds and lots of people are being duped, including individuals who I know to be quite savvy when it comes to these kinds of things. You’ve probably seen the alluring ads, often accompanied by eye-catching headlines like “as seen on Shark Tank”, “Featured in Name a Magazine” or “Name a Celebrity’s Miracle Cream”. Many of the products claim to be recommended by Dr Oz. – almost guaranteed this is not the case. You’ll read about women who discovered miraculous breakthroughs, often in as little time as overnight. And, you’ll see LOTS of before/after photo-shopped pictures. These are not real results, rather images purchased from a number of websites that sell photos online.

The ads tend to follow a similar story line, often referencing a celebrity along with an everyday woman who accidentally discovered that by using one cream in the morning and another at night that their skin miraculously improved. You will sometimes see these ads following you around on Facebook. The free skin care trial usually includes a modest shipping fee along with free products. Who doesn’t want to find a cure for wrinkles? Especially if free skin care products are involved!

Unfortunately, these ‘free trials’ are not free. Signing up makes you turn over all your personal information – name, address, email, phone PLUS your credit card information (to pay for shipping). At the bottom of the sign-up form – usually waaaay down at the bottom – and in very small print, you are agreeing to try the product for 14 days or so, after which time you will be billed for the full price (in the region of $100) and then every 30 days to eternity for another month’s supply.

When you realize you’ve been duped and want to rectify the situation, it’s often impossible to reach the company because:

  • The companies sometimes publish non-existent phone numbers
  • They are based in countries without an extradition policy (i.e. Venezuela, Panama, Pakistan), which means that we have no recourse other than cancelling our credit cards to get out of the recurring arrangement.
  • Once the scam is discovered, some of the companies will close up shop and re-package products under a new name and start all over again.

If you have been scammed and want out, it’s a long and lengthy process back. Here’s what to do:

  1. Call the company and request they cancel your subscription and demand a refund. Since many of the companies don’t publish their phone numbers, this may be difficult. If this is the case, call your bank/credit card company and ask if they have it.
  2. Be firm and stand your ground. Don’t accept anything less than a full refund or cancellation as they will often try to placate you with a 50% refund or charge a restocking fee.
  3. Threaten to report them to the BBB if they won’t refund.
  4. Escalate your complaint to a supervisor and don’t back down.
  5. They will often put you on hold. FOREVER. Don’t hang up – continue to hold until you speak to someone.
  6. Ask for an email confirmation of your cancellation so that you have a record.

If all the above fail, call your credit card company and dispute the charges as fraudulent. The charges are sometimes reversed and may be blocked from further transactions. Cancelling your credit card isn’t enough – you must document your complaint with the credit card company and try to contact the manufacturer to avoid a potential collection letter down the road.

Free skin care trials won’t be going away anytime soon and the internet makes it very easy for these companies to proliferate. If you’ve been tricked, you’re not alone – many, many people have come before you and many more will follow. The Better Business Bureau offers some good tips for how to avoid online scams and I hope that this post has given you some additional strategies to fight back.

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