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'Free sample' website scam warning

Hannah Jolliffe / 30 March 2020

It’s tempting to say yes to free samples online, but many are scams, designed to lure you in with something free and then leave you exposed.

Sample pots of lotions and creams
If you send away for any samples, read the small print very carefully to make sure you are not signing up for any subscriptions

Scam one: pay for postage and receive a free sample

Offering free samples and then asking you to pay a small fee to cover the postage is a common online scam. The alarm bells should ring if you are asked to give your credit or debit card details to pay for the postage.

This is usually a nominal amount – often less than £1 – making it seem harmless. The problem arises later, when the company uses your bank details to withdraw larger sums of money from your account.

Saga reader Jean fell for this scam, paying 99p for postage with her debit card for a free sample of skin cream. Fourteen days later £89 was taken from her account.

Jean complained but was told she had agreed to a regular subscription when she submitted her details. She said that wasn’t made clear and cancelled the subscription. A month later another £89 was taken. She complained again but was told the same.

Similar scams are operating for many different products. CBD oil is another example which can easily be found online, where a free trial bottle is offered in return for payment of postage. But often, there will be a recurring monthly subscription to the product hidden in the terms and conditions, and the product you receive is likely to be of extremely low quality.

Scam two: free samples click bait

Attractive ads from well-known brands often appear on social media and search engines, but are they always what they seem? These are often well-designed and offer you a free sample if you click on the image to find out more.

They are seemingly genuine, however just one click can take you through to a scammer’s website and put your computer at risk of some form of malware infection.

Scams like this have been circulating for household brand names, including PG Tips, Vanish and MAC Cosmetics. And, because the ads look so professional it’s easy to click without thinking, making them less conspicuous than phishing emails that are poorly written and presented.

How to spot and avoid free sample scams

Read the terms and conditions

It may be dull, but there are often catches hidden in the small print. If you don’t want to read them, ask yourself if you really need the free sample.

Don’t give out your bank details

If receiving the free sample relies on providing your credit or debit card details, chances are that they will be used without your permission in future.

Don’t pay for a ‘free’ sample

A freebie isn’t a freebie if you have to pay for it! Fraudsters often put a spin on your payment, calling it a ‘processing fee’ or ‘handling fee’, and then disappearing without sending your sample.

Ask yourself if it’s too good to be true

Most genuine free samples are only worth a small amount of money. If you’re being offered something of high value, it’s unlikely to be genuine.

Think before filling out a form

Giving away lots of personal information in exchange for something free may not be as good as it sounds. Many scams operate where this personal information is collected and illegally sold on, putting your online privacy protection at risk.

Check if the brand and website is reliable

Scammers are clever, and the earlier example shows that it’s easy to appear like a genuine brand. Always scan ads for any links before clicking through, to check they are linking to a reliable website. Often, big brands do give away free samples, but it’s best to navigate your own way to the company website to find the offer than to click through from a targeted ad on social media or a search engine. If you’re checking the brand website be cautious of the top listings in the search results as these are often paid for, and will be labelled ‘Ad’. Rivals and scammers can bid on reputable search terms to try and look authentic. Check any URL before clicking, and if in doubt scroll down to see the non-paid for listings.

Trust your instincts

If you’re not sure that the offer is genuine, be prepared to walk away. It’s never worth putting your privacy or financial security at risk for a free sample that’s likely to be worth very little.

Seek out advice

If you do fall for a scam, there is help out there. If you have paid for something that you haven’t received, talk to your bank to see if the money can be reimbursed via the ‘chargeback’ scheme run by Visa and Mastercard. You can also seek advice from the Financial Ombudsman Service (0800 023 4567).

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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