As a public service to our wonderful readers, BrightReviews is launching a brand new series of articles designed to help you avoid some of the most common “sins” television marketers commit. Read, learn, and share these tips so you and your loved ones don’t get burned. The Sins so far in the series: Sin #1: Sneaky Pricing, Sin #2: The Upsell, Sin #3: Lousy Customer Service, Sin #4: Evil Privacy Policy.

And now, Sin #5 – Subscribing You To Stuff You Don’t Want!

Hidden Subscriptions are a dastardly way some underhand marketing companies get you (and keep you) in their clutches. They may do this in a number of ways, including free trial periods and “convenient” automatic re-shipments of products. This can sometimes happen if you aren’t reading the fine print or paying close attention during the checkout process.

One of the most popular methods used the supposed “Free” Trial Offer. Some products – especially in the category of Health, Beauty, or Sleep ­– will tempt you by offering to send you a sample of the product. Often times these items are listed as “free” or “no-obligation” but they most likely will still charge shipping and handling.

A Few Sinners We’ve Come Across

A classic example of how this works is a product called Sleep Squares which promises you a full night’s rest if you eat their bit of faux chocolate. They have a “free” 7-day trial that actually costs $6.95 in shipping and handling. In addition, they automatically ship (and bill) you for a one-month supply and sign you up for a 30, 60, or 90-day re-shipment. To add insult to injury, the 30-day cancellation period starts when the product is ordered not received. Since these products also tend to have very slow shipping times, there is a very tiny window for returns.

Another way they get you is through confusion. We found this to be true of Derm Exclusive, a set of anti-aging products that offer a 30-day money-back guarantee on their Introductory Collection (minus S&H of course) to reel you in.

When you click on the order page, you are confronted with two other packages, Advanced, or Ultimate that add more tantalizing products, which, if ordered, you will be billed once a month for three months. On top of that, the fine print reveals whatever you do, you are automatically enrolled in a “Beauty Club,” where you will receive another package and bill 90 days later and every 3 months after that until you cancel – if you can! Gail Flanders from Clarence, NY complained to us:

“Don't buy! Doesn't work and I can't cancel since they won't let you. I have called several times and OMG, what a pain in neck and it's still unresolved!”

How and why do these companies get away with this? Because, quite simply, people don’t check their monthly credit card statements very carefully. If they do notice a suspicious billing and actually work up the effort to call the company, they are often greeting with lousy customer service, which creates further deterrent.

What You Can Do

In order to avoid the shock and horror associated with the unwanted subscription:

  • Read the fine print! If you are ordering online, be sure to look at all the charges and wording during the order process. Look out for trigger words like club, program, membership, join, or free trial.
  • Check your credit/debit card statements! These companies are counting on you not to notice their monthly billing. Because a lot of people use automatic payments and e-statements, it’s easy to let it slip by. Most credit cards let you set up an alert if your card is charged over a certain amount. Enable this feature and set it at $20.
  • If you receive a package in the mail of products you did not order or want, do not open them. Some of these companies don’t allow the return of opened merchandise.
  • Make a good faith attempt to resolve through the company’s customer service department. Document everything by taking notes.
  • If that doesn’t work, call your credit card company as soon as possible and notify them of the unwarranted charges. They may ask you to write a letter and mail within 60 days. (The Federal Trade Commission has a sample here.) Some credit cards say you are responsible for the first $50, but most waive this amount.
  • You may want to file a complaint with the FTC so they can possibly impose penalties and maybe alert others.
  • If they are listed with the Better Business Bureau, you can file a complaint with them as well. However, since they are not a government agency, there is a limit to what they can do.
  • If you see their product page here on BrightReviews, let us know of the scam!

We hope these tips help you keep an eye out for the Subscription Sin, which often sneaks up on you months later when you are unawares!

Next time, Sin #6: Crappy Products