Free product trials can often be anything but for consumers

Posted March 22, 2009, at 8:04 p.m.

Oprah says no way. Same with Rachael Ray.

So why do some promoters of acai berry products keep saying these TV stars are behind their stuff? Because celebrity sells, and shifty salespeople will link the names of celebs to their products without authorization to help sales.

Quoting from Oprah’s Web site: “Consumers should be aware that Oprah Winfrey is not associated with nor does she endorse any acai berry product, company or online solicitation of such products, including MonaVie juice products. Attorneys for Harpo [Oprah’s company] are pursuing companies that claim such an affiliation.”

Acai (ah-sigh-ee) is the berry of a kind of palm tree found in the rain forests of Brazil. It’s touted for high content of antioxidants, amino acids and those essential fatty acids we’re told to look for.

A couple of people wrote to Oprah’s Web site just last week. One bluntly called an offer a scam, saying “They will charge your credit card monthly regardless of cancellation.”

Two consumers in the Bangor area wrote to us with similar concerns. The “free” trial period started when the product was shipped, not when they received it. One unhappy customer called twice to cancel, waiting a total of 4½ hours for cancellation numbers that failed to work (a second product shipment was on the way even before the trial period ended).

One of our writers ended up canceling her credit card; the other is still hoping for a refund. The Better Business Bureau says it has received thousands of complaints from across the country about various marketers of acai products. The majority say hawkers promise a free trial period, only to send bills month after month or, where they have the power, hit the consumer’s checking account.

Canceling is difficult, and refunds are rarely made. Often, when a shipper agrees to stop sending the original product, another “bonus offer” keeps coming — and so do the bills.

There’s help, but David Leach, principal examiner with Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, says people with disputes need to act fast. Leach cites Regulation E of the Electronic Funds Transfer Act. It gives consumers the right to dispute electronic debits from their bank accounts. You must write directly to your bank or credit union; explain that you feel the withdrawals were illegal (violating the free trial period offer, for example) and dispute those withdrawals. Do this within 60 days of receiving their statement or discovering the unauthorized debits. The bank or credit union may be able to do a “charge back” or “late return” of the electronic debits.

Consumers who have had problems with these or other “free trial period” offers may wish to notify Maine’s attorney general, who looks for patterns of abuse when investigating consumer fraud. Call 800-436-2131 to reach the AG’s Consumer Protection Division.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

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