Anyone tempted to buy from an unfamiliar Internet retailer should first check the Web sites 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.
Appeal denied. Darci Beauport couldn't reach customer service to cancel a cream that she'd inadvertently ordered by failing to realize her trial had ended, so she tried instead to contest the charge on her Discover card. But Discover turned down her appeal, and she wasn't able to block future charges. "I had to cancel my Discover card," says Beauport, 60, a realty specialist for the Bureau of Land Management from Glenwood Springs, Colo. According to a spokesman for Discover, who couldn't comment specifically on Beauport's case, this type of appeal will be denied if a merchant provides evidence that the cardholder made a legitimate purchase.
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 says.
If you're ordering a vitamin or herbal product, keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration exerts very little control in this arena. Manufacturers are not required to perform clinical trials to prove that resveratrol or acai pills delay signs of aging or help you shed pounds, for example. A search on PubMed, a federal database of scientific literature, reveals only a handful of studies on either substance's role in aging. And most of those were conducted in animals, which are often poor predictors of how humans will respond.
In any case, it's best to stick with products that have the "USP Verified" seal. U.S. Pharmacopeia is a nongovernmental agency that sets standards for ingredients used in prescription and over-the-counter drugs. While the seal doesn't guarantee that a supplement will live up to its marketing claims, it does show that the maker follows good manufacturing practices and that the supplement actually contains the ingredients listed on the label.
Finally, beware of breathless testimonials from supposedly satisfied customers, which commonly accompany free trial offers on the Web. "My skin, hair, nails are vastly improved (hair is thicker!)" says a smiling middle-age woman on one supplement seller's site. But Internet fraud expert Christine Durst, a consultant to the FTC and FBI, easily discovered that the woman was a model whose photo was for sale as a "Mature Beauty" at iStockphoto.com. Durst suspects the endorsement was the product of a clever ad copywriter. "We call them testiphonials—they're made up," Durst says. You don't have to be an expert sleuth to sniff them out, either. Photos can be researched in most browsers by right-clicking on the photo, choosing "image properties," then copying the photo's URL into the homepage at www.tineye.com.
As for Kathleen Cole, she filed a complaint about her free trial with the Better Business Bureau and the website Ripoff Report, a popular destination for consumers who want to warn other people about their experiences with Internet retailers. Her advice to any friends now who might be weighing anti-aging pitches on the Web: "Go to the health food store, get some avocado oil, and move on," Cole says. "I'd rather look 10 years older than go through this nonsense again."