That Free Trial? Yeah, It Will Cost You

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Just don’t sign up for free trials. Odds are very high you’ll regret it.

Perhaps you think you can outsmart the company offering them, but the more educated you are, the more likely you are to end up with surprise charges after a free trial.

A new Bankrate study has found that 59% of consumers who have done a thing as foolish as forking over their credit or debit card information to sign up for a free trial have ended up with surprise charges.

Not quite fraud, but not quite legitimate, these kinds of fees are sometimes called “gray charges.” A 2013 study pegged the value of gray charges at $14 billion annually, about half of that from the free-to-paid “business model.” That’s more than $200 per consumer, per year.

By the way, 33% of consumers told Bankrate they never sign up for free trials. You should be in that group.

Strictly speaking, consumers who were victims told Bankrate that, “I have signed up for a free trial and have been charged for a service without realizing when it ended.”

That’s human nature, right? Free trials are optimized to expire precisely when you forget you’ve signed up — trust me, lots of behavioral research goes into this. So, 30 days pass, the free period expires and, boom, there’s a $19.99 charge on your credit card. Consumers often suffer months of such charges before they realize what’s happened.

Gray charges are classic Gotcha Capitalism.

One incredibly unfair tool companies use to trick consumers is to make it much easier to sign up for than to cancel such services. There’s a one-click sign-up page, but canceling requires a phone call and the better part of a lunch hour. This is one regulation that Congress should pass tomorrow: If you can sign up for a service online, you should be able to cancel online with the same number of clicks.

The Bankrate survey also came with this fascinating nugget: The higher your income and education, the more likely you are to get hit with surprise free-trial charges.

For example, among consumers who have signed up for free trials, 65% of those who hold post-graduate degrees said they were victims. But only 52% of those with a high degree or less said so. Similarly, 65% of those with annual incomes over $80,000 said they’d been hit by surprise charges, but only 55% of those earning less than $40,000 said so.

“My best guess is that people with lower incomes and less education … and there’s a lot of overlap between these groups … are keeping a closer eye on their finances because they have less money to spare. They’re pinching every penny,” said Ted Rossman, an analyst at Bankrate.

Just because you have a little money doesn’t mean you should let some Gotcha company steal it from you, so look at those bills every month.

There is a slowly growing market to help consumers with gray charges. Startups like Trim offer to scan your monthly bills for unwanted subscriptions or other surprise charges. (There are others — thanks, CreditCards.com). Capital One credit cards come with a feature called Eno (once upon a time called “Second Look”) that theoretically spots gray charges for account holders. These are positive steps.

But obviously, gray-charge companies still have the upper hand in this Gotcha game, which brings me back to my original point: Just say no. Just don’t sign up for free trials expecting you’ll cancel. You won’t cancel them. If you like the product well enough, just sign up for it and plan to pay. Because you will.

More from Bob Sullivan:

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