The deal is irresistible: Get a free trial for a cream that will erase your wrinkles. But if you're not careful, this deal could wipe out your bank account instead.
Joan Pall thought she'd found the fountain of youth on her Facebook feed: an ad for a skin treatment called Brio, which promised clear and beautiful skin.
"I'm going to be 73, and you want to do whatever you can to look good for yourself," Pall said. "It looked authentic and I thought, gee this could be something, look at the faces. They looked kind of wrinkly, then they looked really good in the next shot."
She followed the link to a free trial offer — only a $4.95 shipping fee required.
"I was going to sample it, that's all I thought," she said.
When several more creams with different names arrived, Pall returned them, assuming it was a mistake. Three months later, she noticed a problem.
"My account was dwindling, and i didn't know why," Pall said.
She says $1,300 has been taken out of her account. Her debit card statement showed 23 separate charges from nine different merchants she didn't recognize in Nevada, Florida, Texas and California.
"I was just so angry," Pall said.
It seems Pall hadn't reviewed the terms of the deal. She'd actually signed up for a 14-day trial that started the moment she ordered, days before she even got the product. Missing the return deadline, she was instantly enrolled in an auto-shipment program for more lotions and potions.
She persisted with trying to cancel and got an $81 refund, but she's still out more than $1,200.
"I felt really stupid, that I'd been had," she said.
Pall is far from alone. The I-Team found pages of online complaints about Brio and hundreds more for other skin treatment brands promoted with similar risk-free offers. The product names and addresses differ, but the online pitches often feature similar layouts and even the same models.
The I-Team found one woman's face in web ads for Brio and more than 30 other skincare products.
Mom and YouTube personality Janet D'Oliveira didn't buy any skin creams, but says her face is being used to sell them after posting a video about how Botox erased her wrinkles. She says she learned it was being used without her permission in ads for dozens of different products on Facebook and Instagram.
"People were believing it and buying it like crazy," she said. "A company is profiting off scamming people, and that makes me feel terrible."
D'Oliveira says one of the products that used her video in a Facebook ad is Allegro, which is sold by a company called Hydra Skin Sciences. Turns out, that company also markets Brio.
The I-Team reached out to Hydra Skin Sciences. Asked why Pall's debit card took a $1,300 hit, a representative could only explain a couple hundred dollars' worth of charges, but told us Hydra Skin sells thousands of products.
Asked if Pall could get a refund, he said "nothing can be done."
"I want to make sure this doesn't happen to other people — it happened to six of my friends," Pall said. "I think I'm too smart to get duped like this, but no one is too smart."
But there is some good news here: the I-Team reached out to Union Bank. Because Pall has been a longtime good customer, they've decided to credit her account close to a $1,000 as a way of helping her through a stressful situation.
"Ms. Pall has been a valued Union Bank customer for many years and we appreciate that this has been a difficult situation for her," Union Bank said in a statement. "Although her dispute regarding these charges is strictly with the merchant, Union Bank would like to assist her through this stressful situation. To demonstrate our appreciation for her continued relationship with our bank, we will be crediting her account with us for $996.37, the full amount of her claim with the merchant."
The bank also wanted to urge viewers not to use debit cards for "free trial" offers because they don't offer as much protection as credit cards.
Tips to protect you from "free trial" trouble:
- Graphic-rich product pages that make extreme claims and promises (ie, "As effective as plastic surgery!")
- Any variation of the phrases "free trial," "trial bottle," or "free sample"
- Language or graphics that convey a sense of urgency, such as "hurry!" or a countdown timer
- Pre-checked boxes
Before You Buy:
- Research the product online — many are the target of consumer complaints
- Find and read the "terms of agreement" — they're often at the very bottom of a web page, or in fine/faint print
- Never use a debit card — they offer less consumer protection than credit cards, which may compensate you for losses due to fraud
- Look for how you can cancel future shipments or services
- Mark your calendar — if your "free trial" offer expires and you forget to cancel, you may be on the hook for a long-term subscription
If You're Charged for Products You Didn't Want:
- Contact the company directly to request cancellation
- If that doesn't work, contact your bank/credit card company immediately — you may have the option of disputing the charges