“Free trial” Subscription Sraps

The beginning of the year is often the time when consumers are signing up to all kinds of things but ECC Ireland would like to remind you to just be careful, particularly if you’re signing up for things like dating website memberships or free trials.

There’s no such thing as free 

This is the time of year when some consumers may be looking for dieting pills, beauty products, health and protein shakes or supplements online. From a health point of view you should always be careful what you buy online.

From a consumer perspective you should read the terms and conditions very carefully making sure to look out for what happens when the ‘free trial’ ends as many of these result in consumers being locked into costly subscription services. Remember, there’s no such thing as free so think ‘what’s the catch?’

The sell: The consumer is often offered the item(s) for free for a certain period of time and told that only postage and packaging will be charged.

The reality: Unfortunately, in many cases the consumer doesn’t realise that these are actually subscription services that will incur significant monthly charges unless the consumer opts out before the end of the ‘free trial’ period. In some cases the free sample is not even delivered until after the trial period has ended.

Consumers are frequently given a third party mail distribution or forwarding address in Europe but the companies themselves are often based outside the EU which makes it difficult to secure redress.

Many free trial complaints received by ECC Ireland have involved pop-up ads where the consumer was asked to pay a small amount for postage and packaging, only to later find out that they had unwittingly signed up to a subscription service. Some complaints have involved charges of up to €400 with consumers reporting that the products did not arrive until after the free trial period had already expired.

Consumers frequently encounter these offers via adverts on social media. As we tend to do a lot of our searching and online interaction on our mobiles, we are therefore not as careful as maybe we would be using our desktop or laptops. This presents new opportunities for traders to get consumers interested in free trials or subscriptions, not all of them good.


Free trial subscription – What to do?

  • With any online consumer transaction always make sure you know who you are dealing with by looking for the trader’s address in the ‘contact us’ section or terms and conditions. If you can’t find the address easily or there is just a ‘contact us’ form then this should set alarm bells ringing. Do a ‘whois lookup domain’ search to find out who registered the website, where it was registered, and when. Bear in mind that although a website may have a co.uk web address, the company could actually be registered outside the EU and therefore EU consumer legislation may not apply.
  • Read the small print for the terms and conditions of the offer that you are signing up to. The T&Cs is also the place where you should find further detail on the timeframe you have to cancel (typically 14 days from the date of placing the order) if you change your mind.
  • Make sure you know what happens after the trial period ends. Consumers are often required to contact traders and inform them in writing that they wish to cancel. Otherwise, the free trial period may automatically rollover to a subscription where you pay a monthly fee.
  • Watch out for what website you are on if you are redirected by clicking on a link – this may be another company and by signing up you’re authorising them to take the monthly subscription. Check the URL at the top of the page.
  • If large sums of money have been charged to your card, then you should contact the trader in writing immediately and indicate that you wish to cancel the contract.
  • Carefully read the terms and conditions as the trader may offer refunds to unsatisfied customers, but this may be subject to a charge.
  • Always use a secure method of payment like a bank/credit card just in case things go wrong because at least you may have the option of talking to your bank/credit card provider to maybe cancel an unauthorised transaction or availing of chargeback, if you cannot get a satisfactory response from the trader.
  • If you are given a limited time to cancel the contract make sure you do so. You could set a reminder on your phone so you don’t forget.