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Free-trial beauty scams are on the rise, and here’s how to protect yourself

There are so many skin-care products out there, how are we supposed to tell what works? Maybe we’ll go with the face cream a trusted celebrity endorses. Why not at least give it a shot, since you can order a free trial online right now? That’s the logical thinking that has cost some people hundreds of dollars a month in a scam called a subscription trap, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), and the kinds of people falling for this trap may surprise you.

‘Free’ was too good to be true

“I saw an ad for a face cream that was supposed to diminish lines and wrinkles, and blah, blah, blah, and it was a free trial, so I was like, ‘What do I have to lose?’ ” Debbie Wagner of Oak Park, Ill., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. The product was endorsed by an actress she admired. “I thought, ‘Well, if it works for these people, it’s gotta work.’ … It was somebody that I trusted.”

When she got the cream, it was more like “creamy water” and did nothing, Wagner says. She called the company and was told she couldn’t get a refund. She didn’t mind being out the $7 or $8 she’d paid for shipping and handling, though, and thought nothing more of it. Then a month later, another box of products from the company arrived. She called the company again.

“She said, ‘Well, you know, we just send out. It’s an automatic thing,’ ” Wagner recalls of her conversation, during which she was again refused a refund. This time the charge was $110. The boxes kept coming, and she kept calling.

“It got to the point where they were getting really snotty with me,” Wagner says. She realized that this company was charging her $110 every month and asked her bank to stop authorizing their transactions. The company offered only partial refunds, so finally she called the BBB.

A scam on the rise

These scams use internet ads to draw people to sites that claim celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Beyoncé, Joanna Gaines or the Shark Tank panel swear by the product. But often the endorsements aren’t real — and are even exploiting celebrities without their permission. As a result, multiple celebrities have tried to sue to remove their likeness from the ads, only to see them pop up again for a different product. Sometimes the ads will look like a news article citing scientific research (with no links to actual studies) and testimonials. Then they will urge users to act fast to receive a free trial, for which they must still give credit or debit card information to pay for shipping costs. What they’re really signing up for is a pricey subscription service that is nearly impossible to cancel.

It should be some small comfort to Wagner that she’s not alone.

“Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission that mentioned the words ‘free trial’ doubled between 2015 and 2017,” Steve Baker, an international investigations specialist for the BBB and the author of its latest report on subscription traps, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. The BBB has recorded 36,986 complaints, averaging $186 lost per person. In 14 cases that the FTC has resolved, victims lost a total of $1.3 billion.

Before you write off the victims of these operations as clueless older folks who just don’t understand the internet, you should know that more people between the ages of 30 and 39 fell for the trick than any other demographic.

“Millennials are more likely to be fraud victims, because they think, ‘OK, we’re smart; we’re not like those stupid senile old people,’ ” Baker says. “I’ve got friends who’ve fallen for this. I’ve even had a couple people around the Better Business Bureau system confess to me that they either fell for it or their spouses have.”

This is a global problem too. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre logged an 859 percent increase in such cases from 2016 to 2017, and in September 2018 the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch noted a 400 percent increase in reports during the year. The numbers are probably much higher than that, since the FTC estimates that only about 10 percent of victims actually report their experiences.

By federal law (the 2010 Restore Online Consumer Confidence Act, or ROSCA), these companies are supposed to disclose in clear, understandable language the terms of the free trial (for instance, whether there will be a charge if something isn’t returned within a set number of days) and state that the customer is signing up for a subscription service. It’s also against the law to advertise false endorsements.

“Obviously legitimate companies are going to comply with that, but crooks don’t care about regulations,” Baker says. The noncompliant companies will either not disclose the information at all or make the links to their terms difficult to find.

Often, people don’t realize they’ve paid for a subscription service for beauty products until it’s too late. (Photo: Getty Images)

What to do if you’re a victim

Often when people finally realize what they signed up for, they can’t locate contact information for the company to cancel their subscription or ask for a refund.

Eventually, the BBB helped Wagner get some of her money back. Baker says that the best recourse for most people is to contact their credit card issuer, though that doesn’t always work either. “Visa tells us it does give people chargebacks for this stuff,” Baker says. “But there are some companies that are not doing it.”

A BBB survey of scam victims showed that of those who requested refunds from their credit card company, 44 percent got no refund and 14 percent got partial refunds. If your initial request to the credit card company is denied, Baker suggests gathering screenshots of the website where the product was purchased (if it’s still available) and providing as much other information (search for evidence of other victims of the company, such as complaints to the BBB) to back up your claim.

Filing a complaint with the BBB or the FTC is another important step, not just to resolve your own issue but to help the agencies prosecute the companies running these scams.

“We’d like to see more criminal prosecutions of these operations,” Baker says. “The crooks don’t like it when the FTC comes in and freezes their assets and puts them out of business, but they really don’t like going to jail. … It’s only after some of the [agencies] send people to jail that the message gets out that this [crime] isn’t safe anymore.”

How to shop safely

As a disabled retiree, Wagner still relies on shopping online for many of her needs, and now she’s wary of who to trust. “I learned a very expensive lesson,” she says. “I will only do Amazon … Macy’s, JCPenney, Kohl’s — you know, those reputable companies.” In truth, wary consumers don’t have to restrict their shopping to megacorporations as long as they do a bit of research and read the fine print first.

“I would make sure to find the terms and conditions hyperlink and see what it says, because often that’s where they hide these disclosures,” Baker says. “If they don’t have a physical address anywhere on the website, you should run for the hills.”

Baker also suggests looking up the company on BBB.org to see if there are complaints, as well as doing an online search of the company name and the word “scam.”

The good guys
Remember, there are lovely, legitimate subscription services out there too. For beauty products, Yahoo’s beauty editors love the Korean skin-care service Mishibox. You can get monthly deliveries from big companies like Sephora and discover new go-to products with others, like Glossybox and longtime favorite Birchbox. Best of all, unlike the criminal rip-offs out there, these subscriptions are in the $10-to-$20-a-month range, prices they’ll let you know about up front.

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