Beware free trials of anti-aging products

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Arlene Weintraub

Kathleen Cole was browsing an Internet drugstore when an ad popped up too tantalizing to resist. A company called Syndero was featuring a 14-day free trial of Dermitage, a cream that promised to fade wrinkles and restore youthful-looking skin.

Cole, 70, was happy with how she looked, but what, she wondered, did she have to lose? So she handed over her credit card number with the understanding that it wouldn’t be charged unless she was sold on Dermitage at the end of the trial.

What Cole didn’t realize was that she’d actually just agreed to pay $99 a month for monthly shipments, and that the free-trial clock would start ticking the day the product shipped.

Only because she suffered an allergic reaction and called to ask how to return the cream did Cole find out about these details — and that she had just five days left to send the product back in order to avoid the charges.

“It was so hidden within the jargon of the fine print that I missed it, and I have a master’s degree,” said Cole, a freelance book editor in Denver, Colo. She did have to shell out $50 to ship the cream back to the company’s Canadian warehouse, and to be safe, she put a block on her credit card to ensure that there’d be no chance of surprises later.

A flood of cosmetics and other elixirs advertised as magic against old age is pulling in consumers on the Internet these days, often to their later dismay.

Complaints from consumers like Cole about tactics often used to sell the products — the so-called free trials, the monthly commitment, an often complicated and difficult cancellation process — have caught the attention of federal lawmakers, who are looking into the problem.

“When an anti-aging company said ‘free trial, give us your credit card,’ it’s almost always a ‘gotcha,’” said Joe Stanganelli, a lawyer in Boston, Mass.

Little evidence of benefit

Often, the companies that sell the cosmetic concoctions, colon cleansers and supplements make anti-aging claims backed by little or no scientific evidence.

In some cases, the pitches even come with phony celebrity endorsements. Last year, Oprah Winfrey and physician Mehmet Oz sued more than 50 Internet vendors for improperly using their names and likenesses, and in some cases, clips from “The Oprah Winfrey show” to sell products.

While both stars have discussed the likes of Brazilian acai berry and resveratrol on air, they’ve never endorsed any particular product.

Barbara Summers was persuaded by the come-ons twice. The retired court reporter from Morgantown, W.Va., ordered a free trial of an acai supplement promising not only to keep her young but also to help her lose weight. She didn’t realize she’d signed up for regular shipments until she found two months’ worth of charges on her credit card.

Later, Summers was offered a free trial of a wrinkle cream in return for filling out a survey from an online retailer. “I used it for two weeks, but I couldn’t tell the difference. My kids couldn’t tell the difference,” said Summers, 53. She was able to get through to customer service and cancel before monthly charges started, though she did get slapped with the return shipping costs.

What’s legal?

Nationally, the Better Business Bureau and other consumer protection agencies have heard so often about bogus free trials that the Federal Trade Commission is now in discussions with Congress about requiring online retailers to clearly disclose what the deals involve, according to Leonard Gordon, director of the FTC’s northeast regional office.

At the moment, retailers can impose monthly charges as long as they disclose what they’re doing in their terms and conditions, he said, which they often bury in “mouseprint” on their websites. The Northern California BBB office has fielded more than 300 complaints about San Francisco-based Syndero, said Lori Wilson, vice president of operations for that branch.

Andrea O’Brien, Syndero’s vice president of customer service, stated in an email that “The information regarding the terms and conditions associated with all Dermitage products and offers are clearly stated and provided in full to every consumer.” She also said that Dermitage cream got a thumbs-up from 86 percent of a test group of more than 250 women, “who told us their skin looked younger after using our products for 21 days.”

Research company and conditions

Anyone tempted to buy from an unfamiliar Internet retailer should first check the websites of the local BBB and the state attorney general’s office to ensure there are no complaints on record. Even if not, it’s never a good idea to hand over your credit card information without reading the terms and conditions page to make sure you’re not agreeing to any automatic charges.

If it indicates that the free trial period starts the day the company ships the product, be aware that there’s a risk you won’t get it in time to return it. Typical return deadlines are just two weeks from the date shipped.

Also be wary if the company’s return address is overseas, as you might have to pay a large postage bill to return the goods.

Still feel compelled to take a chance on a product? Consider protecting yourself against a run-up in charges by using a card with a low credit limit. Also, it’s wise to check with your card issuer to make sure you’re allowed to block companies from charging the card.

Many people who file complaints about online retailers report that when they call customer service, they always get busy signals or full voicemail boxes. John Breyault, vice president of public policy for the National Consumers League, suggests testing a company’s customer service department before you place an order. “You shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to cancel,” he said.

 Arlene Weintraub’s book “Selling the Fountain of Youth” was published in August 2010 by Basic Books.

 © 2011 U.S. News and World Report