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 Dermitàge, 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 Dermitàge at the end of the trial.
What Cole didn't realize was that she had 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," says Cole, a freelance book editor in Denver. 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 says 'free trial, give us your credit card,' it's almost always a 'gotcha,' " says Joe Stanganelli, a lawyer in Boston.
Little evidence. 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 her resident on-air physician, Mehmet Oz, sued more than 50 Internet vendors for improperly using their names and likenesses, and in some cases clips from the 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 had 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," says 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.
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 says, 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, says Lori Wilson, vice president of operations for that branch. "The information regarding the terms and conditions associated with all Dermitàge products and offers are clearly stated and provided in full to every consumer," Andrea O'Brien, Syndero's vice president of customer service, stated in an E-mail. She added that customer support is available seven days a week and products can be returned within 30 days for a full refund. As for Dermitàge's benefits, the website claims that its "Glucosamine Complex" helps boost collagen production, and O'Brien noted that the 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."