Negative Option Scam Artist Gets Nailed by FTC

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Everybody knows this bit of wisdom.

But almost everybody ignores it.

I include myself because I fell for a lot of “too good to be true” pitches in my youth, one of which cost me $30,000 in losses.

I’m much more skeptical now. If a pitch doesn’t make sense to me, I start looking for the “the catch.” I start looking for the fine print. Even if you can’t readily see it, it’s probably there.

FTC Nails Canadian Scam Artist

Herb Weisbaum tells us that the FTC has now shut down a con man who raked in $359 million by offering bogus free trial offers for acai weight loss products, colon cleanses, teeth whitening, free credit reports, work-at-home schemes, and penny auction sites.

The con man in question is Jesse Willms of Alberta, Canada. His particular scams worked like many online scams: offer a free product or free trial, ask the customer to pay shipping only, then start charging his credit card 14 days later.

These types of offers are often called “negative option” offers. In other words, the consumer didn’t say “no,” so that means the company can charge his credit card based on the terms of the purchase — terms that most of the customers are completely unaware of.

The reason customers are unaware of the terms is because they are buried in the fine print. The font is extremely small and often in light gray so it’s easy to overlook and difficult to read.

But the bottom line is that you’re not just requesting a free trial and paying for shipping only… you’re “authorizing” the company to charge you for products and continuity programs you didn’t even know about.

Why is the free trial only good for 14 days after purchase? Because the customer doesn’t have enough time to try the product and return it. Therefore, the additional credit card charges are virtually guaranteed.

How Efficient Are Negative Option Offers?

How efficient was Willms’s operation? He bilked nearly 4 million people in five different countries out of $359 million.

The fact that there are 4 million people who’d fall for such negative option scams is a sad commentary on how easily we will fall for offers that really are too good to be true.

Even more disconcerting is that Willms is only one of many such online scam artists trying to get access to people’s credit cards via negative option free trials.

Here’s what I always ask myself when confronted with an offer that seems too good to be true:

“How is this company making money?”

Every company has to generate a profit to survive. If it’s not immediately obvious, watch out. Chances are the company is hiding how they profit so they can take advantage of you.

Once you understand how the company is profiting, then you can make a much better decision about whether or not to do business with the company.

-Ryan M. Healy

Ryan M. Healy

Ryan Healy is a financial copywriter and the author of Speed Writing for Nonfiction Writers. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like WordStream.com, SmallBizClub.com, and MarketingForSuccess.com.