It’s always the fine print that trips us up.  Then it’s only belatedly we find out that the “free trials” really aren’t so free.  That’s one of the reasons I wrote yesterday (April 18th) about the Federal Trade Commission’s settlement with Green Millionaire LLC (see, “FTC Halts “Free Gas for Life” False Claims -$2 Million for Consumer Refunds”).  We sometimes only learn that we unintentionally “ordered” the additional products or services when we see new credit card charges or bank account debits.

So how does this happen?  More importantly, how can you protect yourself and your credit and debit card private financial information?

Here are 10 tips for avoiding the “free trial” traps:

  1. All “free trials” end at some point.  That may be an obvious point but it won’t be from the “big print”/easily readable sections of the ad or enrollment form (online or in print).  So keep that foremost in mind when thinking about one of these offers.
  2. Read the really fine print.  See “Tip #1.”  You need to know all about the offer before signing up and the most important information might mean reading way down to the small print.
  3. Do your own “due diligence”.  Take the time to go online and see if others have complained, or complimented,  the company and the product or service. Other people’s experiences could be a great source of information to warn you about other “traps” they’ve encountered.
  4. Offer’s Terms and Conditions.  These are key — you need to know when the “free trial” ends and how to cancel.  This is true for any offer (online, in print, on TV, radio).  “Red flag” warning signs are if you can’t find them or if they’re so complicated to understand — this should make you stop from signing up and giving over your private financial information.
  5. Who Really Is Behind the Offer. Try and figure out who really is making the offer.  The offer might actually be coming from a different company or person than the one that’s showing online.
  6. Pre-Checked Boxes. Beware! See if there are already pre-checked boxes since leaving these pre-checked could mean you’re giving the company permission to continue the offer past the end of the “free trial” period — and now you’ll be charged for the product or service.
  7. Mark Your Calendars.  Remember Tip #1!  If you go ahead with the offer, mark your calendars, and set alerts, with the date on which you’ve got to send in your cancellation (assuming you want to do so).  If the “free trial” end date passes without you notifying the company, then you’ll likely be paying for more products and ongoing charges.
  8. Cancellation Terms. Make sure to find out how to cancel future product shipments or services.  See the time specified for doing so and whether you’ll be obligated to pay for any future shipments post cancellation.
  9. Credit and Debit Card Statements. Read them to see if there are charges for products or services you didn’t order or thought you’d canceled.
  10. Dispute and Complain.  If you are wrongly charged, you’ve got several resources.  First, contact the company to see if you can get the problem handled.  If that doesn’t work, contact your credit card company, tell them you’re disputing the charge and ask to have the charge reversed.  Also, you can file a report with the FTC (www.ftc.gov/complaint); with your local consumer protection agency (which can be found at consumer action.gov); or with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org).

I’m not saying don’t try “free trials” — just follow these “10 tips” so the “free trial” is on your terms.