YOUR MONEY: Read details on risk-free trials

If somebody offers you a risk-free trial of any product on the condition that you pay just $5 for shipping, why would you expect to see $50 to $80 in charges for that product show up on your credit card within days?...

If somebody offers you a risk-free trial of any product on the condition that you pay just $5 for shipping, why would you expect to see $50 to $80 in charges for that product show up on your credit card within days?

Well, of course, you wouldn't.

Consumers are being warned about so-called free trials for acai berry weight-loss products. The trial period often ends more quickly than expected -- and the charges pack onto the credit card.

The Arizona Attorney General's Office filed a lawsuit against one marketer -- Central Coast Nutraceuticals Inc. -- for alleged violations under the state's consumer fraud act.

On top of watching calories, keep an eye on your credit card statement if you sign up for a free trial.


Katie Beth Walker, 27, thought she had nothing to lose last summer but a few extra pounds when she spotted a "risk-free trial" promotion online for an acai berry weight-loss product. All she had to spend was $4.99 for shipping and handling.

Then, "one of my friends said, 'Those ain't free Katie.'"

No, they're not.

Consumers across the nation are discovering that they can lose up to $90 a month far quicker than they can lose any pounds with some of these freebie offers.

Why the unsightly bulge on the credit card bill? Consumers typically give their credit card information to pay for the shipping costs. Then, the dieter discovers that it's hard to cancel within the so-called free trial period -- and the credit card automatically starts packing on those additional charges for more shipments.

Remember this scam strategy anytime you sign up for some limited free trial service. You could end up getting charged far more than you think and have an impossible time getting your money back.

Some telemarketers can offer you free magazines for a "processing fee." And then you can discover the fee may be more than the retail price of the magazine subscription.

Other promoters let you use a credit card to pay for shipping or something else, and then they'll quickly charge your card in the future for continuing a service or program that you might not even want. I've seen free trial offers for some colon cleansing dietary supplements, too. When you look closely at the ad -- beyond the happy, thin couple in swimsuits -- you see an asterisk next to the word free. The small print says: Terms apply; shipping and handling not included.


Walker, who lives in Plymouth, Mich., and has a 16-month-old daughter, Charlotte, said she received her acai berry product, but there wasn't an address listed on the bottle for where she was supposed to send it back.

She found a phone number online and then heard a recording saying that the wait time was 55 minutes. She did a little more research and found plenty of other customer complaints online, too.

"So I canceled my credit card before they could charge it," she said.

Consumers are being warned that when they order a free bottle, they could actually unknowingly sign up for a trial program that sends out more pills and more bills.

Vickie Galpin, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan, said consumers need to realize that the cancellation period could be shorter than they might assume.

They may be told that they have a 10-day or a 14-day time frame for a free trial period. In some cases, the clock could start ticking when you requested the product, not when you received it.

That colon cleanse? If you bother to read all the fine print -- and there's a ton clogging up the site -- you'd see that the 15-day free trial period includes shipping and transit time. It's not 15 days from when you get the item, but 15 days from when it's shipped. Do you have two days to cancel?

I called one colon cleanse site, and they said it would take two days to process an order and three to five days for shipping.


Do you then have just seven days to cancel? The woman on the phone line suggested that you might want to cancel a day after ordering it -- before you got it -- to get that free trial.

Some consumers even have complained about acai berry products that they did not receive the free trial product before they started being charged the full price.

Some of these acai-berry promotions claim that they've got the backing of Oprah.

But that's not true. Go to . You'll see that Oprah Winfrey is warning consumers that she does not endorse any acai berry product and is not associated with these products.

The colon cleanse site also noted that refunds will be issued to the same credit card that you put on file -- no refunds by check. That sounds like a trick to discourage you from closing a credit card account. But you might need to cancel that credit card to stop future charges.

Tim Burns, public affairs director for the BBB in southeastern Michigan, said consumers have found it extremely difficult to cancel the automatic delivery of more acai berry products every month.

He noted that the BBB has been receiving a large volume of complaints against FX Supplements and Central Coast Nutraceuticals. Nationwide, the BBB has received more than 1,200 complaints for Central Coast Nutraceuticals, which operates several Web sites selling acai, hoodia and male enhancement products.

Remember, if you give your checking account number over the phone to a stranger for "verification" or "computer purposes" or "free trials" that person could use it to improperly take money from your checking account.



'Free' offers can cost:

-- If you give a company your credit card number or checking account information for a so-called free item, it may end up charging your credit card or debit card later if you do not cancel in time. This can be true for all sorts of products.

-- You could have to cancel your credit card in some extreme cases if you want to avoid recurring charges from some services or products.

-- Watch your credit card or checking account statements for charges or withdrawals that you don't recall making. It is possible to complain to your credit card company and get such charges removed from the account.

-- See for alerts on scams. Or see to check out reports on businesses. Or see for information on "dot cons."


(Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at .)

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