DENVER -- Free samples and free trials backed by supposed news stories and research may not be free at all, the Better Business Bureau warns.
"Hands down, almost every time, the consumer is unknowingly enrolled in a continuity program," Ezra Coopersmith, the investigations coordinator at BBB Denver said Thursday.
The BBB released the results of a comprehensive, nationwide investigation it conducted into businesses that use celebrity endorsements and misleading advertisements leaving consumers stuck paying for sometimes costly monthly memberships they don't want.
Over the last three years, the BBB reported receiving nearly 37,000 complaints nationwide about 'free trial' memberships from a wide array of businesses -- some offering weight loss pills, others selling various skin creams.
"Physically finding the companies is really difficult because often they work through ... fulfillment centers that are based all around the country," Coopersmith said. "And the fulfillment centers can be pretty protective over their clients."
According to the BBB's report, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center reports receiving an increasing number of complaints too, with consumer losses adding up to roughly $15 million in the last three years.
Coopersmith said BBB usually hears of high-dollar scams that target a select few people, but said these kinds of scams target more people at a lower dollar amount per person.
"At BBB we tell people to read the fine print, but the problem is often these companies aren't even making that fine print available to consumers," he said, citing violations of federal guidelines. He said if the fine print does in fact exist, it often stipulates conditions that are nearly impossible for a consumer to follow like receiving and returning a product within a very narrow time window.
The BBB urges consumers who feel they've been defrauded to attempt to reach the companies involved in the sale, but said they should also contact their banks to dispute questionable charges, report their concerns to the BBB, Federal Trade Commission and the state's attorney general's office.
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