Free trial offers can be a great way to try new products or services without making a long-term commitment. Unfortunately, many people sign up for a “membership” without realizing it. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has received hundreds of reports about “free trials” on BBB’s Scam Tracker, and many of those consumers lost money.

Companies use free trials to sell a variety of items, but many of those reported to the BBB have to do with beauty products. Be aware that by accepting a free trial offer, you may be agreeing to buy additional products and services unless you cancel within a specified period of time. It’s called negative option marketing, and it’s left many people feeling misled.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Negative Option Marketing is a term used to “broadly refer to a category of commercial transactions in which the seller interprets a customer’s failure to take an affirmative action, either to reject an offer or cancel an agreement, as assent to be charged for goods or services.”

Read the offer carefully before you decide whether it is a good deal for you. When offers are made orally – whether by radio, TV, on the phone or in person – listen carefully to the message. If you are uncertain, ask to receive the terms and conditions in writing. Never give in to pressure to agree to a deal.

When ordering online, don’t click too fast. Review the order form. Look for pre-checked boxes. You may be giving permission to send more products that you’ll have to pay for, or you may be agreeing to a strict cancellation policy and not know it.

If you do decide you want to try a free trial, heed these tips from the BBB:

Do your research. Look up the company online to see what other customers are saying about its service and products.

Read the fine print. Take a close look at the terms and conditions. Look for hidden fees that could add up to more than you are willing to pay.

Circle the date. Make a calendar reminder for when the free trial ends so you can be sure to cancel on time. Many times the advertisement says “30 Day Free Trial,” but you might only have 14 days to cancel.

Watch your accounts. Keep track of your bank and credit card statements. Look for any charges you don’t recognize so you can contact your financial institution immediately.

Jim Hegarty is president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau.

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