Don’t fall for these five infomercial tricks

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Joseph Pisani

Infomercials that sell shampoos, zit creams and the latest weight loss gadgets can be hard to turn away from. But before you pick up that phone, you should know that the “low, low prices” and “easy monthly payments” advertised are not always what you’ll pay.

“There are many problems with infomercials,” said Edgar Dworsky, the editor of consumer resource guide ConsumerWorld.org. “Not all of them are misleading, but many are.”

Leaving aside whether the miracle products really work as well as advertised (some do, but always check out online reviews at Amazon.com or elsewhere), you have to be careful and aware that the $19.95 price touted often will wind up being a lot more.

One popular tactic: adding high processing and handling fees.

The company behind the Snuggie, Perfect Bacon Bowl and other “As Seen on TV” products agreed to pay $8 million in March to settle charges that it deceived customers. The Federal Trade Commission said costumers were led to believe they would be getting two $19.95 products for less than $10 each, but actually paid $35.85 when a processing and handling fee was added. Allstar Marketing Group said it always believed it followed the law and said that it has made changes to make costs easier to understand.

Still, bad players are out there. Here’s what to look out for:

1. Stealth subscriptions

Get real close to the TV and read the fine print: Some marketers will automatically put customers on a subscription plan. That means customers will be charged periodically to ship products. This is especially common from those hawking face creams, hair conditioners and other beauty products.

In the infomercial, a warning is often written in tiny print under the price, said Dworsky, who also edits MousePrint.org, which exposes the fine print in advertising.

2. Easy payments — that add up

Break out the calculator: Expensive gadgets are sometimes broken up into “easy payments” that makes the product seem cheaper. They might say, for example, that you’ll pay $39.95 in four easy payments, adding up to $160.

3. Buy one get one (not) free

Freebies can be far from free. A “free second item” can sometimes come with high processing fees. Before making a purchase, customers should call and ask the company what the total charges will be, including shipping, handling and fees, said Dworsky.   

4. Upsell! Upsell! Upsell!

If you buy a product online or through the phone, you may be pushed to buy extra products you don’t need. If you fall for it, you’ll also likely pay extra processing, handling and shipping costs, pushing your bill even higher.

5. “Trial” period — for a price!

Be aware that free trials aren’t forever (and sometimes trials aren’t even free). Ask what the cost will be if you decide to keep the product.

“The price shown is often just the price oftrying the product,” said Dworsky. “If you want to keep it, a much higher price is charged.”

You should also be very clear on what you have to do if you decide to return the product. Who pays for return shipping, by when does it have to be returned, and how difficult will it be?                           

— AP