You've been presented with a free trial offer for a product or service that you find interesting. Why wouldn't you take advantage of it? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns you to proceed with caution, because some free trial offers can be misleading and cost you significant money in the long run.
Legitimate free trials are offered in the hope that you like the product or service and will agree to subscriptions or repeat purchases, but they may come with unwanted consequences. You may have to give out your personal information or credit card number, potentially exposing you to a deluge of unwanted e-mails at best and identity theft at worst. Less scrupulous businesses may try to trick you into agreeing to future purchases or subscriptions in exchange for the "free" product, and make it extremely difficult for you to cancel if you are dissatisfied. If you would like to prevent identity theft, check out our credit monitoring service.
If you find a free trial intriguing, start by doing your homework on the company behind the free trial offer and any of their previous offers. Online reviews should give you a good baseline for the company's typical approach. Consider the positive reviews, but focus on how the company handles consumers that are dissatisfied with their offers. Check with the FTC and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) to get an overall company assessment.
Next, study the terms and conditions very carefully. Take the perspective of the company making the offer. What's in it for them? Look for evidence that you are inadvertently making a longer-term commitment and pay special attention to cancellation policies. Does the "free" offer simply enroll you in a service where the trial period is free but you must actively cancel to avoid further charges once the trial period is up?
Verify the cancellation dates and policies before you sign up. Don't assume that you can wait until the last minute to cancel after a free trial. There may be processing times involved that affect your decision.
Look for any fees that may be associated with the trial and the immediate period after the trial ends. If upfront shipping and handling fees are involved, are they reasonable? Are there any cancellation fees or running service fees that may be subject to change after the trial period expires?
Pre-checked default boxes are a common method of drawing you into a greater commitment. You may need to uncheck a box to opt-out of a secondary set of terms and conditions, such as agreeing to continue to receive products and services past the trial date or signing up for other products in the company's line.
If you do accept a free offer and decide to cancel it later, make sure the company has actually followed through with the cancellation. It's not uncommon for consumers to pay for unwanted services for months via automatic payment. Check your credit and debit card statements to make sure the company has not applied unwanted charges to one of your accounts.
Even if you fully intend to continue with the product or service beforehand, check your overall commitment to make sure that longer-term costs are not negating the effect of your free trial. Is the same product or service available elsewhere for a better price?
Businesses offer free trials for a reason – they are expecting some sort of return on their offer. You may find a free trial offer to be exactly as described, but do your research before focusing too much on the word "free." Make sure that you understand exactly what you are committing to in return for the offer, and how to get out of that offer if you choose to do so. Remember that few things in life are truly free, and almost nothing in commerce is truly free.
If you want more credit, check out our list of credit card offers.