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Not always free: Investigation reveals free trial offers are a multi-billion dollar industry

WEST BEND -- If you spend time online, it's possible you'd run into advertisements for miracles products that get rid of wrinkles. They claim to be endorsed by celebrities But, what happens when you sign up for a free trial of the product? It could end up costing you.

A little bottle cost Cathy Winicki of West Bend hundreds of dollars.

"This is called BellaNu," Winicki said.

She was online when she read what she thoughts was a news article about two women who appeared on the television show "Shark Tank" and their skincare line.

"These two women who made it big and I wanted to believe their story," Winicki said.

She click the button for a free trial of the face cream. All she had to do was pay a shipping fee.

"The first thing they asked me for was my credit card and address," Winicki recalled.

After entering her information, Winicki changed her mind.

"I closed my browser and never even ordered the product," she said.

Soon after, she received a call about it.

"Saying we noticed you were on our website this weekend and you didn't complete an order can we help you complete that? I said, no thank you, I'm not interested. About 4 days later the product showed up," Winicki said.

She was charged for the shipping and considered it a lesson learned.

Until when month later, when she looked at her bank balance.

"I happened to check my back account one morning and saw there was almost a hundred dollar charge. Not once, but twice," Winicki said.

Winicki is not alone.

Theresa Knoche of Milwaukee has a similar story.

"Nothings free, nothing is free," Knoche said. "I was on Facebook fooling around and a pop-up ad came up for this skin cream."

It was called Revyve. Knoche signed up for a free trial and then came the surprise charges.

"I got charged for $89.95 and it was supposed to be a free trial for $6.95," Knoche said.

She tried to cancel.

"A week later they sent me another jar of moisturizer for $96," Knoche said.

A Better Business Bureau investigation reveals fraudsters have turned free trial offers into a multi-billion dollar industry.

"We're going into the New Year -- so weight loss, skin care, all these kinds of products are really going to be out there more and more," explained Jim Temmer of the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau. "They'll say Oprah Winfrey supports this or Tim Allen supports this. They're almost all fake."

Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about free trials  more than doubled from 2015 to 2017. Meanwhile, the BBB has received nearly 37,000 complaints over the last three years with consumers losing an average $186.

Often, the only way to get money back is through your credit card or bank.

"Call them and tell them that you didn't authorize these charges," Temmer advised.

Red flags that a free trial offer may be too good to be true include:

  • Heavy celebrity endorsements
  • Terms and conditions that are difficult to find
  • No company address or phone number
  • A short time frame for returns.

The BBB helped Knoche get her money back.

"It took me about nine months for me to get my money back," she said.

Winicki wasn't having any luck until she told the company she planned to file a fraud claim.

She says they told her they'd give her a refund.

"If you get the bank on the line and they promise me they won`t continue with the fraudulent charge, we`ll give you your money back," Winicki recalled the company telling her.

The BBB investigation found that often these deceptive free trial products are simply shipped from fulfillment centers. It found one center in Florida that can be tied to near 450 different products. It wasn't easy to find contact information for BellaNu and Revyve, but we did reach out for comment. We did not hear back.

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