Do you ever suspect that a “free trial” is too good to be true…that there’s got to be a catch? The Federal Trade Commission recently agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement with a group of companies that the FTC accused of operating a worldwide scam involving free-trial ­offers of various products.

These companies advertised online that customers could sample products such as dietary supplements…skin creams…cosmetics…and e-cigarettes virtually for free—just pay a few dollars for shipping and handling. But many customers who responded were instead enrolled in ongoing ­automatic-shipment programs that repeatedly billed their credit cards for products they didn’t ­realize they had committed to keep getting when they requested the free trial. 

Some customers also were charged as much as $98.71 when they didn’t return the initial product before the end of an unreasonably short free-trial period. Consumers must beware, because often the rules for a free trial are confusing, published in very small print and/or somewhat hidden in the promotion piece.* What to do…

Be extremely suspicious of free-trial offers that require a credit card number up front to pay for shipping. 

Be skeptical about “celebrity ­endorsements” for products that may not have been endorsed by the named celebrity at all. If you are tempted, study the small print in search of hidden charges. 

Ask your credit card providers whether they offer “virtual credit cards” and, if so, pay using one of these. A virtual credit card typically is linked to a conventional credit card account, but it has a separate account number that you can easily cancel to stop unauthorized recurring charges. Virtual cards often have short expiration dates and separate spending limits, too, which you could set very low. 

If you are billed unfairly, call your credit card issuer immediately…explain that you did not agree to the purchase…and ask to have the charge reversed. 

*Full disclosure: Bottom Line Inc. engages in free-trial offers but clearly states the terms of the offer and does not request any payment or credit card information up front.