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."
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."
Arlene Weintraub's book Selling the Fountain of Youth was published in August by Basic Books.