Feds Say Free Trial Offers Fraught With Danger

You’ve probably seen online ads with offers to let you try a product – or a service – for a very low cost, or even for free. Sometimes they’re tempting: I mean, who doesn’t want whiter teeth for a dollar plus shipping? Until the great deal turns into a rip-off. That’s what the FTC says happened in a case it announced this week..

One-time “trial” offer for tooth whitener led to recurring $200 monthly charges

The Federal Trade Commission has charged an online marketing operation with deceptively luring people into an expensive negative option scam using an initial low-cost ($1.03, plus shipping and handling) “trial” offer for tooth whiteners and other products.

A federal court temporarily halted the operation and froze its assets at the request of the FTC, which seeks to end the practices.

The defendants sold tooth-whitening products under various names, and hired other companies to help them market the products. These affiliate marketers created online surveys, as well as ads for free or low-cost trials – all to drive people to the product’s website. What happens next is so complicated that we created an infographic to explain it.

In short, once people ended up on the product’s website, they filled in their info, put in their credit card number, and clicked “Complete Checkout.” When people clicked this button they not only got the free trial of the one product, but were actually agreeing to monthly shipments of the product at a cost of $94.31 each month.

Next, another screen came up and people were asked to click “Complete Checkout” again. But the second screen wasn’t a confirmation screen for the trial of the product. Instead, by clicking this button people were actually agreeing to monthly shipments of a second product. So, what started as a $1.03 (plus shipping) trial of one product wound up being an unexpected two products at a very unexpected $94.31 each – for a total monthly charge of $188.96 plus shipping.

Trial offers can be tricky – and there is often a catch. If you’re tempted, do some research first, and read the terms and conditions of the offer very closely. Sometimes, however, marketers might simply try to trick you – and it can be hard to spot. Look again at the infographic…would you have known what charges were about to hit your credit card? If you use your credit card for a low-cost trial offer, be sure to check your credit card statement closely. If you see charges you didn’t authorize, contact the company and your bank immediately.

According to the FTC, the defendants used a network of 78 companies, at least 87 websites, and dozens of bank accounts to hide their ownership and launder the profits from the scheme. They also drove people to their websites via affiliate networks that generate web traffic with blog posts, banner ads and surveys. For example, some consumers got emails inviting them to fill out surveys falsely claiming to be for well-known merchants such as Kohl’s and Amazon, and were directed to the defendants’ websites to claim a “reward” for completing the survey.

The FTC alleges that, using deceptive claims, hidden fine-print disclosures and confusing terms, the defendants tricked consumers into providing their billing information, and then started charging them about $100 a month unless consumers canceled within 8 days. They also used an order confirmation page to trick consumers into signing up for a second monthly subscription, which cost an additional $100, for an identical product. Because of this double-deception, the defendants charged consumers, who reasonably believed they had agreed to a single shipment for $1.03 plus shipping costs, about $200 a month until they canceled both unauthorized subscriptions.

The defendants are charged with violating the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act.

The defendants are Blair McNea, Danielle Foss, Jennifer Johnson, Boulder Creek Internet Solutions Inc., Walnut Street Marketing Inc., and these LLCs: Anasazi Management Partners, RevMountain, Wave Rock, Juniper Solutions, Jasper Woods, Wheeler Peak Marketing, ROIRunner, Cherry Blitz, Flat Iron Avenue, Absolutely Working, Three Lakes, Bridge Ford, How and Why, Spruce River, TrimXT, Elation White, IvoryPro, Doing What’s Possible, RevGuard, RevLive!, Blue Rocket Brands, Convertis, Convertis Marketing, Turtle Mountains, Boulder Black Diamond, Mint House, Thunder Avenue, University & Folsom, Snow Sale, Brand Force, Wild Farms, Salamonie River, Indigo Systems, Night Watch Group, Newport Crossing, Greenville Creek, Brookville Lane, Honey Lake, Condor Canyon, Brass Triangle, Solid Ice, Sandstone Beach, Desert Gecko, Blizzardwhite, Action Pro White, First Class Whitening, Spark Whitening, Titanwhite, Dental Pro At Home, Smile Pro Direct, Circle of Youth Skincare, DermaGlam, Sedona Beauty Secrets, Bella at Home, SkinnyIQ, Body Tropical, and RoadRunner B2C LLC, also doing business as RevGo.

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