'Free trial' or Internet scam?

By Gerri Willis, CNN personal finance editor

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Free trials are not always free. And in some cases, they are very expensive. The FTC, Visa and the Better Business Bureau are warning today about deceptive advertising.

You may have seen those "free trial ads" on the Internet for things like acai berry, teeth whiteners or colon cleansers. In some cases when you click on the free trial, you may (or may not) get the product, but then -- if you don't cancel the product, or opt out -- down the road you get charged repeatedly for products or services you haven't asked for.

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According to VISA, almost 30% of online consumers have been victimized by this deceptive marketing. One company that sells acai berry supplements received more complaints this year than BBB receives about the entire airline industry in one year.

Sometimes, these free trial offers are buried inside what looks like a fake news site. These sites are all about looking official. Even the logos of big media companies -- CNN included -- are used to make this site LOOK legitimate. Below the fake news article are links to "free trials." You may see phony testimonials or consumer comments. Typically on these Web sites the deadline to sign up for a free trials is the next day. Often the details of the offer are buried in the terms and conditions. Legitimate companies do not bury cancellation policies or other charges.

Protect yourself

Be cautious, don't hand over your debit or credit card number to a business you've never heard of without checking it out first with the Better Business Bureau. You can also check in with your state attorney general.

Pay attention to any pre-checked boxes before you give your credit card number. If there is a check in one of these boxes, delete it. A pre-checked box is a big red flag. Otherwise, you could be bound to terms and conditions that you don't want.

Make sure you review your credit card statements when you get them for any unauthorized charges. If you do see unusual activity or unauthorized charges, call up the company and try to resolve it with them. If that doesn't work, dispute the charge with your credit card issuer.

-- CNN's Jen Haley contributed to this article.

Talkback: Have you ever been burned by a deceptive online ad?  To top of page

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