Buyer beware when it comes to free offers

Have you ever ordered something over the phone or the internet and then been offered a free trial? Sometimes it's for a free trial of a product or maybe a cash back offer if you sign up for a free trial membership.  Then you open your next credit card statement and notice a charge for something you don't remember ordering.

In instances like this, it's important to remember that nothing is ever free. The charge is appearing on your credit card or checking account because you didn't take action to either return the product or cancel the membership prior to the end of the trial period.

So how do these companies get your credit card or account information? If you made a purchase, the merchant already has access to charge your credit card or checking account. If you have accepted the free trial offer, either verbally over the phone or online, they may bill you after the free trial period without further approval from you.  

The best solution is to be informed when making a purchase. It is important to read the purchase agreement to see what you are getting into. VISA requires all merchants to post purchase agreements at checkout, prior to purchase.  In most cases, if you don't return the product or cancel the membership prior to the end of the trial period, you are responsible for any charges related to the transaction.

So what do you do if you have received a charge for a free trial offer you feel you didn't agree to? The first step is to contact the merchant and try to work out the dispute. Be sure to keep track of when you contacted the company and who you talked to. If the issue cannot be settled through the merchant, then it is time to contact your credit card provider and file a formal dispute.

For more information and tips, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s webpage on "free" trial offers.