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Scam Alert

Beware of ‘Free Trial’ slimming and beauty products – 11/02/2013

Trading Standards Service (TSS) is warning consumers to avoid online offers of slimming products that claim to be on a ‘free trial basis’.

The warning comes during Scams Awareness Month, when TSS revealed that Northern Ireland consumers lose millions of pounds every year on advance fee loan scams, computer virus scams, counterfeit goods, doorstep selling scams, foreign lotteries and other scams.

Consumers have reported to TSS that they have been led to believe that, when ordering a free sample weight loss product online, that they were only paying for postage and packaging. However, the majority of complainants later discovered that they had unwittingly signed up to a £69 per month regular supply of the product. In some cases, consumers did not notice they had been making monthly payments for seven or eight months.

TSS has received more than 100 complaints from consumers about this scam.

One Belfast consumer saw an online advertisement for a trial offer of some weight loss and body cleansing ‘natural’ herbal tablets. The advertiser was offering them at a trial price of only £2.49 for postage and packaging.

He ordered the tablets, which arrived 14 days later, along with a letter stating that they would charge £69.95 per bottle from his credit card. The letter also mentioned that he had a right to cancel and return the product for a full refund within 14 days of ordering. However, as the tablets only arrived 14 days after he had placed the order, the cancellation period had lapsed, and two amounts of £69.95 plus the postage and packaging were already debited from his credit card account. Additionally, the letter indicated that they would be withdrawing the same amount monthly from this account.

Trading Standards discovered that the full details of what consumers were signing up to were hidden deep within the detailed terms and conditions. It only came to light that consumers had committed to buying a regular monthly supply, when they received a second delivery of the product and £69 was deducted from their bank accounts.

Damien Doherty, Fair Trading Area Inspector for TSS, said: “Consumers should ensure that, when providing bank details for online offers, they always read the terms and conditions carefully to know exactly what they are signing up to.

“At the beginning of each year, many people resolve to lose weight and this is an opportune time for the scammers to take advantage of vulnerable people who are desperate to lose weight. We have spoken to many consumers who felt that they had tried everything to lose weight with no success and that they are willing to try anything. The scammers exploit that sense of desperation with a no obligation ‘free trial’, and profit from it by signing consumers up to a monthly subscription without them knowing.

“Furthermore, when consumers try to cancel their subscription, they find that they cannot get through to the company on the telephone number provided or that the number simply does not work.

“We believe that, in many cases, these ‘trial offers’ are grossly misleading to consumers and are designed to deceive and trick their victims into parting with their cash.”

In addition to the financial issues, Damien also highlighted the potential health risks.

He said: “Slimming aids can be very expensive and, for some of the products on sale, there is little scientific evidence that using them will result in successful weight loss – indeed, consumers could even be potentially putting their health at risk.

“Research into slimming aids has shown that some products on the market are worthless and even dangerous, containing untested and potentially harmful ingredients. Consumers should always seek professional advice from their doctor or pharmacist before purchasing slimming or other health products.”

TSS advises that Consumers should look for the following warning signs to spot the scam:

· The advert claims that weight loss can be effortless, substantial and fast such as ‘lose two stone in two weeks’ or ‘lose weight while you sleep’.
· The advert promotes a particular ingredient as the key factor of success e.g. acai berries, green tea etc…
· The weight loss product is sold outside the normal commercial distribution channels e.g. over the internet, via ‘pop-ups’ or mail order advertisements.
· The ‘free’ trial advert requires you to pay postage and packaging by debit or credit card without providing prominent details that you may be entering into a monthly subscription service for the product cost £69.
· The advert lacks scientific evidence showing the effects of the weight loss product being promoted.

To make sure you protect yourself from this scam, TSS advises:

· If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
· Remember there are no magic pills for rapid weight loss.
· Always read the small print and the terms and conditions very carefully: claims of ‘free’ trial products often have hidden monthly costs.
· Always seek the help and advice of a health care professional before using weight loss products.
· Finally, check to see if there is a ‘cooling off’ or cancellation period, which allows you to end the contract if you are not satisfied.

If consumers have a complaint they should contact Domain Scams on 0300 123 62 62 or log on to http//:www.domainscams.co.uk or contact us via or Facebook page at ‘Northern Ireland Trading Standards Service’. Domain Scams is the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s consumer advice helpline.

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