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Free Trials and Fine Print

Customers want the best deal for their money. A good product with a low sticker price or deep discount is enticing. Companies design eye-catching graphics and special offers to get customers to make fast “buy now, think later" decisions.

But an exciting sale might come back later to haunt you with hidden terms and expensive recurring charges. Take your time before signing up for a free trial offer or purchase. Slowing down and reviewing all the details can help you prevent legal and financial problems later.

What Is Fine Print?

The term “fine print" refers to the often intricate details of a contract. For example, when you buy software, you may need to check a box to show that you agree to a long list of terms and conditions.

Companies must deliver on their promises, but these terms also apply to the customer. The fine print explains the risks or obligations you may face.

Fine Print Is Sometimes Unclear

Often, the fine print is hard to read. The text is sometimes very long, so customers might skip it. Or it may be full of complex legal phrases that protect the seller from a lawsuit but make it harder for the consumer to understand.

Confusing terms aren't automatically against the law, but deception is illegal. For example, ad disclaimers shouldn't be too small for most customers to notice. Customers can use the legal system to hold companies accountable for purposefully misleading them.

Are Free Trial Periods Actually Free?

Sometimes, free trials lead to more costs than a customer expects. Many companies offer new subscribers their products or services for free. But that doesn't mean the offer is always risk-free.

These companies often include:

  • Wine, snack, and meal box delivery subscriptions
  • Gym memberships
  • Streaming services
  • Premium app subscriptions
  • Dietary supplements
  • Cosmetics, skincare creams, and hygiene products

Ads and policies for these free trials should clearly state how long the trial period lasts. They should also mention what happens at the end of the trial period. Some companies stop providing the free product or service, but others may begin charging you according to the fine print.

How To Check What a Purchase Really Costs

Sales lingo like “zero percent interest" and “no money down" can lure customers into a deal. But those phrases often don't tell the whole story.

Read the seller's policies or the sales contract carefully to understand your agreement. Otherwise, you may be liable to pay for more than you bargained for.

Watch out for the details below when reading the fine print for your purchase.

What Are Introductory Offers?

An introductory offer means that the advertised price might only last for a short time. Later, you could be stuck paying a higher cost than you initially planned.

For example, a streaming platform might advertise a low monthly fee. After your first three months, the price increases to a regular rate. Customers may save money in the short term, but businesses tend to expect that many customers won't cancel when the introductory period runs out.

Identify Hidden Fees

Sneaky extra costs may be lurking in the fine print. These are especially common for service-related purchases, such as airline tickets and internet packages. Some fees only apply if you take a specific action.

Examples of hidden fees can include:

  • Activation fees to let you use your product or service
  • Service support fees
  • Installation fees
  • Setup fees
  • Disposal fees, particularly for trade-in items like technology or furniture
  • Early cancellation fees

The fine print might outline these fees and when they apply. Sometimes, customers only learn about extra fees when they receive a surprise bill on their credit card statements.

Add-On Service Plans

Plans and programs can add to a product's sticker price. Some add-on services may be a necessary part of the product. For example, a cell phone requires a coverage plan to function.

A service plan might only be an extra option. For example, car dealers generally offer service plans to help maintain a car. Computer companies might provide service plans for troubleshooting problems down the road.

Extra service plans are rarely free. You might not realize that you accidentally agreed to a service plan when you bought the product.

Check for Variable Rates

Interest rates are more common for financial products such as loans and credit cards. Credit card companies might advertise a low annual percentage rate (APR) that they can only guarantee for a limited time. Later, the credit card company can raise the rate.

Another common example is the adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM). Advertisements for ARMs often attract homebuyers with a low interest rate. The fine print should note that the rate will likely vary over time.

Variable rates are not a problem in themselves, but they can pose a risk if the customer doesn't know the rate could change. A homebuyer or cardholder would expect the same low rate for decades, so their budget would likely reflect the low-rate payments. They might become unable to afford their mortgage or credit card payments when the rate rises.

Offers With Attached Programs

You might have to sign up for a program or plan to take advantage of an offer. A simple example is getting a free perfume sample if you sign up for a paid monthly cosmetics subscription.

As another example, a free credit report advertisement could give you a free report — but only if you pay for an expensive credit monitoring service. That offer may be unnecessary since everyone can get a free yearly credit report without buying a plan.

Review Limited Warranties

Most businesses will work with customers to address a shortcoming with their product. Fixing a problem can satisfy an unhappy customer.

But the fine print might limit your options. It may limit a product warranty only to cover specific types of damage. Scanning the warranty for major purchases such as cars and appliances is a good idea.

Are Recurring Payments Unauthorized Charges?

No, most repeat subscription fees typically count as authorized (approved) charges. You may have unintentionally agreed to the purchase weeks or months before the seller charged you.

By signing up for a free trial, you accept the terms of the trial period. These terms usually say what happens once the trial ends. The fine print may explain that you'll get a bill unless you cancel by a specific date.

Scammers who have your bank or credit card information might bill you for a service or product you never ordered. In this case, the charge may be unauthorized, and you can file a dispute with your financial institution.

Filing a Consumer Complaint

Expensive recurring charges can add up quickly. A company might fail to cancel your subscription after a free trial despite its policy allowing cancellation. Or the policy may have been misleading.

You may want to report a retailer to consumer protection agencies like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Better Business Bureau (BBB). These agencies often investigate whether a seller's business practices are deceptive.

Getting Legal Help

If a problem arises with a purchase, your first step should be to contact the seller or manufacturer. Unfortunately, businesses aren't always willing to work out a resolution.

Consider contacting an attorney for advice. A lawyer can help you review your legal options beyond reporting the seller.

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