2009-12-11 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Commentary By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer


AUDREY PHEFFER
Recently, there has been a rise in Internet advertisements for teeth whitening products. These ads, which often appear on popular news sites, purport to offer a free trial of a teeth whitening product. The only requirement is that the consumer provides his or her credit or debit card number to cover shipping costs.

As a consumer, you should be cautious when responding to these offers. Over the past thirty-six months, the Better Business Bureau has received thousands of complaints regarding teeth whitening companies. The complaints largely stem from consumers who claim they were billed before their trial ended, continued to be billed after they told the company they wanted to cancel, and received charges for products they did not order.

In addition, many of these ads are deceptive, as they link to phony blogs and fake news sites that are designed to look like impartial third party endorsements. The consumer is then directed to another website that claims the teeth whitening product being of fered is "As seen on" the original news website. Adding to the illusion of legitimacy are the appearances of genuine news outlets' corporate logos.

Under New York State law, Chapter 508 of 2007 introduced by Assembly - woman Pheffer, companies offering free trials must clearly and conspicuously disclose the terms of the offer, obtain the express consent of the consumer to accept the offer, and notify consumers at least fifteen days before the end of a free trial. If the free trial ends in less than thirty days, the notification must be sent at least seven days before the end of the trial. Cur rently, these rules only apply to consumers who pay via credit card. However, in the past legislative session, I introduced legislation that was en acted into law, Chapter 280 of 2009, which will ex pand these protections to consumers who use any form of payment, starting on April 1, 2010.

As always, there are reputable companies who will provide you with the advertised product without any hassle. However, when dealing with "free" offers advertised on line it is better to be safe than sorry in order to save yourself time and aggravation later. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) offers the following tips when responding to an ad for "free" pro ducts, including teeth whitening products. First, beware of third-party endorsements, as the company that makes the product may have created these. Second, always read the entire trial offer agreement even though it may be hard to locate, as many websites offering free trials hide key billing terms and conditions in the fine print. Third, before giving any company your personal information, review their policies fully and be aware that in many free trial situations after the trial concludes you will be billed on a recurring basis. Lastly, be sure to check the company's rating with the BBB at www. bbb.org.

If you feel that you have been the victim of fraud or a deceptive business practice, you should consider filing a complaint with the New York State At torney General's Office by calling 1-800-771- 7755 or visiting http://www. oag.state.ny.us. You may also

file a com plaint with the New York State Consumer Protection Board by calling 1-800-697-1220 or visiting http://www. consumer.state.ny.us.

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