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True Costs of "Free" Trial Offers

November 15, 2019

Trying before you buy might seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes what starts as free or low cost can result in huge charges. Know how to protect yourself from hidden costs.

Free trial offers aren’t always as straightforward as they appear. Dishonest businesses can make it tough to cancel, hide terms and conditions, pre-check boxes on online order forms, and put such strict conditions on returns and cancellations that its nearly impossible. Other free offers may enroll you in clubs and subscriptions that give you (and charge you for) much more than you were expecting. The steps below will help you avoid these situations and tell you where to turn when you need help.

To avoid hidden costs

  • Research the company online. Read up on what others are saying about the company’s products and services. Often, other customers will tip you off to any “catch” that comes with the trial.
  • Find the terms and conditions for the offer. Whether you find the offer online, on TV, in a newspaper, or on the radio, you should be able to locate terms and conditions. If you can’t, or if you can’t understand what you’re agreeing to by signing up, don’t.
  • Look for who’s behind the offer. Just because the product is from one company doesn’t mean the offer isn’t from someone else. Know who you’re really doing business with.
  • Watch out for pre-checked boxes. When signing up for a free trial online, look for any already-checked boxes. Those checkmarks may give the company permission to continue subscriptions past the free trial period or sign you up (and bill you) for more products.
  • Mark your calendar. Free trials eventually end, and if yours does and you don’t cancel or take another action with the company, you could quickly be billed full price for more products.
  • Look for information on how to cancel future shipments or services. If you don’t want them, do you need to pay? Do you have a limited time to respond? Know the answers to these kinds of questions before they come up.
  • Monitor your credit and debit card statements. Know immediately if you’re being charged for a product or service you didn’t order.

Who can help

If you see charges you did not agree to, contact the company directly to sort out the situation. If that doesn’t work, contact your credit card company or bank (if using a debit card) to see about disputing the charge. If you’ve been wrongly charged for a free trial offer, you can also file reports with the following agencies:


Content courtesy of the Federal Trade Commission.

This content is for informational purposes only. Readers should under no circumstances rely upon this information as a substitute for their own research or for obtaining specific advice from their own counsel.