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The truth about free trials

Tom Spring | Sept. 10, 2012
We handed over our credit card for 40 online trials, to find out the real cost of 'free.'

The offer was tempting: I could read exclusive online articles about my beloved Red Sox on ESPN Insider, for just $44.95 a year. And to be sure that it would be money well spent, I could sign up for a seven-day free trial. I bit, coughing up my credit card number as part of the deal.

Unfortunately, I couldn't get off the hook.

Finding Red Sox slugger David Ortiz's career RBI totals took seconds on ESPN, but trying to learn how to cancel the free ESPN Insider trial was considerably harder. I searched, clicked, and navigated to what felt like every corner of the site, to no avail. Before giving up I sent ESPN customer service a terse email message requesting that my account be canceled. The next day, the day that my free trial expired, my credit card was charged $44.95.

Later I called customer service, and a cheerful woman named Yvonne told me, "There is no way to cancel online; you have to call to cancel." Why couldn't I find that out online?

After refusing to refund me 100 percent of my $44.95, she transferred me to a supervisor who reiterated the refund policy and then explained how to find the cancellation policy on ESPN.com. I had tried to unearth a cancellation form by clicking the 'My Account' link, but instead I was supposed to go to 'Radio and More' to see the cancellation policy. Who knew?

Free trials are enticing, but as I learned, they come with strings attached. Back in April, in order to test how consumer-friendly free trials are, I signed up for and attempted to quit 40 free trials that required a credit card number. More than a quarter of the services I tried turned out to be a real hassle to quit.

Three of the sites charged me even though I canceled be­­fore the free trial ended. With two other sites, I wound up with a bill simply because I couldn't figure out how to cancel before the trial expired; I blame this problem on poor website design (in both cases representatives later showed me that it was possible to cancel online). And one site provided no way to quit the free trial-online or offline-so I simply gave up.

The news isn't all bad. Free trials from Hulu and Merriam-Webster, for instance, were a breeze to ditch. Hulu stood out because it offered to "remove all [my] personal information from Hulu." At Merriam-Webster's site, saying good-bye took three clicks and less than a minute. (For more about the positive experiences I had, see "Free Trials We Liked.")

The biggest hassles

In the chart here (click to view it full size), you can see the 12 services that proved to be the most aggravating when I attempted to quit.

 

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