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Consumer Advisories

May 2002

Take Control of Your Personal Information

Beware of "Free" Trial Offers

Study your billing statements for unauthorized charges.

Some consumers are being charged for products or services and don't even know it. This happens especially when telemarketers or other sellers offer "free trial offers" -- and then charge consumers' credit cards automatically when the free trial period ends.

Consumers often are surprised when - and if - they discover the unexpected bill. This exploding problem is now among Iowa's top-ten consumer protection complaints. The problem seems to have roots in two things: First, consumers may not realize someone already has the key information to bill their credit card or checking account. Second, sellers may use questionable tactics trying to shift the burden onto the consumer to cancel.

When consumers question such bills, sellers often say, "We told them they'd be billed if they didn't cancel." But such disclosures often are not made at all, are not made clearly, or are not noticed by consumers who don't realize the seller already has access to charge their credit card. Sometimes a mail "notice" is sent but is tossed out as junk mail.

Here's a typical example: A telemarketer calls and offers a free trial period for a "buyers club" touted to offer excellent bargains. Consumers accept the free trial, assuming they will have to provide a credit card later if they decide to sign up. But the solicitor already is able to bill the credit card (they probably bought the list from a credit-card-issuing bank), and the solicitor bills the annual fee when the free trial period ends. The bill could be $80 or $90. The charge might go unnoticed and even be renewed the next year.

There are variations. Consumers might call to order a product or an event ticket, then be given a separate "free trial" pitch for a "credit card protection plan" or buying club for bargains in travel or auto service. Other "free trials" are offered in ads or by retailers.

  • Be very wary of "free" trial offers. Get the details: Will you be billed automatically if you don't cancel? By when must you cancel? How do you cancel? Will you receive a mail notice? Remember, they already may have access to charge you.
  • Examine your credit card bill every month, and also your checking account and phone bills. Watch for unauthorized charges -- and dispute them at once, in writing.
  • Try to watch your mail carefully. Some cancellation notices look like junk mail.
  • For more tips on protecting your privacy:
    www.PrivacyRights.org,

    www.FTC.gov, or

    www.IowaAttorneyGeneral.org (click on "Protecting Consumers.")

    Contact the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division, Des Moines, Iowa 50319 (515-281-5926.
    )


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