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The Watchdog: Fine print can make 'free trial offers' anything but

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

Dear Watchdog:

I am a 79-year-old widow and recently fell for an offer on the Internet, the last thing I thought I would ever do. I clicked on a "free trial offer" of skin care. I received the free items and a $9.89 charge on my Visa statement for shipping. I called to question this and was told I had authorized that charge by checking a small box on the lower corner of my screen.

Then I received a package from them containing two facial products. On my Visa statement, I saw charges for $91 and $89. I called and said I had filed a denial of charges and dispute with Visa. Their response, "Ha! Good luck with that. We have never lost a dispute yet."

I learned a big lesson from a stupid mistake. I question how many others have done this same thing.

Signed, Elizabeth G.

Dear Elizabeth:

You are not alone. Keep reading.

Dear Watchdog:

My husband keeps telling me "nothing is free." I ordered a free sample of face cream from two companies. Ever since, both companies keep sending refills to me which I did not order, but it comes anyway. My credit card is charged $91 and $93. We cannot afford these charges.

I thought of closing the credit card but think they would find another way to harass me. Or sue me.

Signed, Carol G.

Dear Carol:

I have possible solutions. Keep reading.

Dear Watchdog:

I have an issue that should be brought to light. I ordered a free sample of eye cream for my daughter. Then three weeks later I received another box with eye cream and lotion. Called the company, and they said I signed a statement to receive it every month, and that if I didn't call after 14 days the items were not free. They charged me $300.

I could not get a refund. I did not read that statement so it is my bad. But it is in small print. Just wondering if it is deceptive advertising to label it free. By the way, it is not helping my daughter's eyes.

Signed, Marianne P.

Dear Marianne:

We see a pattern, wrinkly as it is. The Watchdog wants to share a few strategies. Yes, it's deceptive, and companies that do this have paid steep fines. The Federal Trade Commission frowns upon companies that use small-print check-off boxes to tie shoppers into purchases they don't realize they're making.

In the past few years, the FTC has gone after sellers of teeth-whitening products that play the same game. Last year, the FTC busted up companies that offer "free" facial creams.

Step one is to file a complaint with ftc.gov. Regulators need complaints to make cases. More complaints mean more victims. It's likely these companies are already on the FTC's radar.

Second is my Watchdog Nation strategy, "flood the zone." File so many complaints asking for a refund that the company cuts you loose because you're a pain.

File complaints online with the Better Business Bureau, the Texas attorney general and the attorney general in the state where the company is headquartered. If the deliveries were made by the Postal Service, contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, too.

Be the squeaky wheel in a dispute. Use the correct pressure points.

Dear Watchdog:

You had a recent column about a guy who couldn't get a credit card deduction stopped. My credit card is through Citi and they offer a service called Virtual Account Number. I am able to generate multiple card numbers. The companies I buy from or donate to can't tell that it's not the number on the credit card in my wallet.

I could call any of these numbers back up online and close them, change the amount, or extend the expiration date.

I generate a new one for every online purchase. I need separate ones for each reoccurring payment such as electricity, gas, water, newspaper. This is a very slight amount of trouble, but I think it is worth it in today's online environment.

Signed, Beth S.

Dear Beth:

Thanks for sharing. Other financial institutions may offer a similar service. Worth checking.

Dear Watchdog:

I received a letter that says I won $4 million in the lottery in Spain. It says, "Also be informed that 5% of your winnings belong to your claim agent because they are the promotion company."

Is this yet another scam?

Signed, Dwight K.

Dear Dwight:

The Watchdog is certain you already know the answer. You never pay money to win money. That 5 percent cut is the tipoff. That's how they make their money off suckers.

You call and talk to some dude to claim your prize. But first you must send them an obscene amount of money before they can send your prize. A prize you will never see.

I want to congratulate you for checking with The Watchdog, Dwight. Final words of advice: Stay away from the free facial cream.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN

The Watchdog Desk works for you to shine light on questionable practices in business and government. We welcome your story ideas and tips.

Contact The Watchdog

Email: watchdog@dallasnews.com

Call: 214-977-2952

Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265