Complaints are soaring over so-called ‘free trials’ on websites. Laura Bowyer reports.
The chances are if something looks too good to be true then it probably is. But so-called free offers are proving to be costly mistakes for internet shoppers.
That’s the warning issued by West Yorkshire Trading Standards.
The watchdog has received a large number of complaints from internet shoppers who have been tempted by online “free trials”.
Whether it’s beauty treatments, slimming products or health products, shoppers believe they are bagging so-called “free” products when visiting certain websites.
The lure of a free product often sees consumers entering their bank details into websites to pay a small fee for postage and packing for what they perceive to be a bargain buy.
But shoppers are finding themselves in for a surprise after unwittingly entering into a monthly subscription contract.
It isn’t until consumers scan through their bank statements that they have discover larger amounts of cash are being withdrawn from their accounts without their knowledge.
West Yorkshire Trading Standards says that some consumers are forking out nearly £70 per month for a service they are not fully aware of.
What these shoppers didn’t realise was that hidden in the terms and conditions of the website they had unwittingly agreed to a monthly subscription contract.
Sometimes some shoppers have found they have been charged payments for several months before they even realise what has happened.
But many of these contracts lock consumers into a Continuous Payment Authority which they can have trouble trying to cancel.
A Continuous Payment Authority authorises a business to withdraw sums from a customer’s account without having to seek repeat authorisation for each payment.
CPAs are often more commonly used to collect payments for the purchases of goods and services such as vehicle breakdown services, insurance policies, broadband and mobile phone services and magazine subscriptions.
The Office of Fair Trading warns that relevant terms of the CPA agreement should be set out clearly and in plain, intelligible language, and brought prominently to the consumer’s attention.
Graham Hebblethwaite, chief officer of West Yorkshire Trading Standards said: “It’s natural for people to be attracted to a “free offer”.
“But this is a costly mistake to make and there is little prospect of getting your money back once it has been taken from your account.”
The authority is warning consumers to check the small print of “trials” carefully.
In some cases the terms and conditions are not clear and are often only accessible through a link at the bottom of a webpage.
Trading Standards has warned that often these businesses appear to be based in the UK but they are usually based overseas and used an address in this country to front the illusion.
There are a large number of these businesses offering a wide range of different types of products. In addition to the potential for consumers to lose out financially, the products themselves are often of little use.
Coun Ros Lund, who is the chair of the West Yorkshire Joint Services Committee, which oversees the work of Trading Standards said that it is difficult for consumers to differentiate genuine deals from scams.
Coun Lund said: “There are so many misleading internet offers it is difficult for consumers to negotiate the genuine from the scams.
“Never pass on your credit card or bank details unless you are absolutely sure that the business is trustworthy.
“If you don’t have the time to read all the small print and research the internet feedback, just walk away from the offer.”
The Advertising Standards Authority has recently ruled against one such product called Dead Sea Kit because of the misleading nature of the “free” offer and the lack of evidence to support the claims made of the product.
Consumers who think they may have been a victim of one of these websites can contact Citizens Advice Consumer Service on 08454 04 05 06.
How can CPA be used
A Continuous Payment Authority (CPA) authorises a business to withdraw sums from a customer’s account without having to seek repeat authorisation for each payment.
CPAs are often used to collect payments for the purchase of goods and services such as vehicle breakdown services and regular subscriptions.
The Office of Fair Trading warns that the customer should be given reasonable prior notice of renewal of the contract.