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The truth about free trials

Tom Spring | Sept. 10, 2012
We handed over our credit card for 40 online trials, to find out the real cost of 'free.'

After I contacted the company's public relations firm seeking comment for this report, I got a call from SociallyKnow's cofounder, Paul Crandell, who apologized. "There are obviously some bugs to work out," Crandell told me. He blamed technical errors for the problems I had encountered with the service's voicemail and email. SociallyKnow, Crandell admitted, should make its cancellation instructions clearer. In his defense, he said that the site offers some disclosure about how to cancel the service, pointing to a sentence about halfway into the 3020-word terms of service that states: "The Customer may terminate its SociallyKnow account at any time and for any reason, after the first three months of service, by sending an email to"

Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, says that free-trial offers online account for a large number of consumer complaints to state and private consumer-advocacy agencies. "We find people complain less about the services themselves, and more about surprise charges and tricky terms of service," Grant notes. She says that typical complaints include mystery billing for services that consumers don't remember agreeing to pay for.

"Free trials are ubiquitous, and there are just no standards, which is problematic for consumers. It's very much a Wild West out there," Grant says. No two free trials are the same, she says, and companies may employ several tricks. "It almost seems like they are making it hard to quit on purpose."

Pitfalls of free trials

Over the course of my testing, I discovered quite a few of these tricks. In the chart here (click to view it full size), you can see the 17 free trials, of the 40 I tested, that put me through a moderate amount of hassle when I tried to quit.

If you're considering signing up for a free trial, watch for the following traps.

Free trials can cost you more in the long run: With my subscription to ESPN Insider, the terms and conditions mentioned that "the renewal rate may be higher than the introductory rate for first-time subscribers." When I checked the prices, I saw that ESPN charges $39.95 a year for ESPN Insider if you sign up without the free trial. My free-trial arrangement, in contrast, worked out to a rate of $44.95 per year.

Some free trials don't prevent you from incurring costs: My Audible 30-day free trial included two free audiobooks. But if I had listened to a third book during the trial period, I would have been charged before the end of my 30-day free trial.

Knowing when the trial starts and stops can be tricky: In some free trials, the day you start your trial is day one. For instance, if you start a seven-day free trial on a Sunday night at 10 p.m., the trial will end the following Saturday-not the following Sunday at 10 p.m. Although you might naively as­­sume that you have seven full days from the moment you start, in fact you have only seven calendar days. This issue is particularly tricky with free trials that last 72 hours, such as the ones I tested at and at the Foreclosure Radar website.


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