Consumers ought to put up their guard when they spot ads that use the words "weight loss" and "free trial" – especially when those phrases are used in combination.
Weight loss is rarely as easy as taking a pill, and "free trials" are not, as some ads imply, physician-managed drug trials.
As for "free," don't bet on it.
In the latest Federal Trade Commission strike against inflated weight loss claims and bogus free trials, the agency announced this week that a marketer of acai berry supplements and colon cleansers will repay $1.5 million to consumers to settle charges over its ads and billing practices.
The case is worth reviewing, considering this is the time of year many consumers resolve – at least briefly -- to shed a few pounds.
The $1.5 million settlement stems from a suit the FTC filed last year against Phoenix-based Central Coast Nutraceuticals. The suit accused the marketer of Acai Pure supplements and ColoPure and Colotox colon cleanser of misleading consumers into believing the products had been endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and Rachel Ray.
Central Coast and four related companies claimed that Acai Pure supplements could "flush out excess pounds" and that people who wanted to lose significant amounts fast might "qualify" for the supplement by answering a series of questions.
Regardless of how people answered these questions, they qualified for the free trial, FTC said.
The catch with any free trial – whether it's a diet product or tooth whitener -- is that a consumer has to cancel by a certain date to avoid additional shipments and the hefty charges that go with them.
Canceling, though, isn't always easy.
In Central Coast's case, consumers were told they could try the product "risk free" as long as they returned the product within 14 days if they decided they didn't want it.
According to the FTC's suit:
•The company didn't tell consumers until after they received the product that to return it, they must first get a return authorization from the company.
• Consumers who asked for a return authorization complained their requests were ignored.
• Consumers who shipped the product back without the authorization found that the company charged them anyway – and sometimes threw in a restocking fee.
The practices, the FTC said, "made it all but impossible (for consumers) to avoid paying full price for the products, typically $39.95 to $59.95."
The defendants are banned from offering free trials to consumers as part of the settlement.
If the practices of Central Coast sound familiar, it's because pitches like this are all over the Internet and air waves.
Last fall, the FTC convinced a court to temporarily halt free trials for weight loss products, free credit reports and tooth whiteners by a Canadian marketer, Jesse Willms, and his affiliates. In that suit, the FTC contended consumers lost $450 million to free trials they couldn't cancel.
Last spring, the agency cracked down on sites that advertised weight loss products with fabricated "news" reports that used the names of real media outlets.
If you're tempted by a "free trial" offer, protect yourself by:
• Researching the seller. The Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org/us) provides company reports.
• Reading terms carefully. Find out exactly what you'll need to do to cancel – and the date by which you must act. Uncheck prechecked order boxes that might obligate you to pay for additional items.
• Paying safely. If you order with a credit card, you'll have the right to dispute if terms change. If you use another method of payment, you won't. You only have 60 days to file a credit dispute – so don't let bogus refund promises lull you into missing that deadline.
• Complaining if things go wrong. If a company doesn't do what it promises –or if it springs new terms on you after you order, complain to the FTC at ftc.gov or 1-877-382-4357.
Better yet, try this risk-free trial instead: Head to your local library and check out materials that will help you improve your diet and begin a sensible exercise program.