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CBS 58 Special Report: Free trial scams

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- During the coronavirus pandemic there are, unfortunately, more scams targeting vulnerable people.  One is companies offering free trials of products, then roping you into spending hundreds.

The word “free” is pretty appealing, especially right now, when times are tough, but “free trials” are not always as risk-free as they claim to be.

“The deal was you put in your credit card to secure a 14-day trial of the product,” said Mary Kasal, a victim of a free trial scam.

An eye cream, promising to reduce wrinkles and dark circles that you can try for free seemed like a great deal until it wasn’t. Mary Kasal says it took the product about ten days to get to her, and shortly after, another box of the eye cream arrived. And so did a $100 charge on her credit card.

“They told me that in fact I had missed the 14-day deadline, that the product was mine and I couldn’t return it,” Kasal said. “And if I wanted to stop the auto shipment, I couldn’t do it verbally, I had to do it online.”

What happened to Kasal happens to a lot of people. In a 2018 Better Business Bureau study, the Federal Trade Commission cases reported $1.3 billion in losses in the last ten years.

Right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, these free trial scams are popping up even more.

“People have a lot more times on their hands, they’re at home, they’re looking on social media, maybe they’re looking to improve themselves somehow,” said Jim Temmer, President of the Better Business Bureau Serving Wisconsin. “And that’s the target market for this.”

Experts say the offers are usually for beauty or weight loss products, often targeted toward older people and those who have been online searching for similar products.

“I’ve seen some for pills that claim immunity boosting properties,” said Steve Baker, an international investigations specialist for the BBB. “Why would people be interested in those right now? Right?”

The supposed “free” trial takes a while to get to you, and by the time it does, your trial is up and they automatically ship you more. The details are usually buried in fine print or hyperlinks.

“These guys are very slick,” Baker said. “Their websites are very professional. They’re using the names of celebrities which give them a lot of credence with people.”

Last year the Better Business Bureau got 21,583 complaints about the free trial offers. That’s up from the previous two years. And the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center got reports of losses totaling more than $6 million.

But enforcement agencies are working to shut down these companies. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission sent half a million dollars in refund checks to people who thought they were getting free trials of kitchen gadgets.

"We didn't grow up with this internet stuff,” Kasal said. “It just makes us feel like oh I got taken again by a young person. It’s a sad feeling.”

After the Better Business bureau study, Visa and MasterCard changed their policies to help stop these scams. If you get ripped off, call your credit card company to dispute the charge. And report the scam to the BBB, FBI or Federal trade commission.

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