FTC, Visa, Better Business Bureau warn about deceptive Web marketing

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The Federal Trade Commission, Visa and the Better Business Bureau are warning consumers about deceptively designed “negative option” Web marketing and e-mail offers.

The groups are partnering to warn consumers about, in particular, free trial offers that require a cancellation or opt-out. In such cases, a company takes a consumer's failure to cancel a free trial offer, often located in e-mail or Web-based promotions, as permission to begin charging for a service or a monthly fee.

The FTC said in a statement that some merchants use this practice appropriately, but others hide details in fine print or terms and conditions, or make cancellations or returns difficult.

The organizations, which announced the initiative on December 17, told consumers that they can report complaints to the FTC, a local BBB office or to Visa. Visa launched a microsite with frequently asked questions about the deceptive online marketing practice, tips for customers to avoid negative options and contact info for reporting problems with marketers.

“Free trail marketing can be convenient for consumers – if the terms are clearly spelled out beforehand,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. “Legitimate marketers don't hide critical information about costs or cancellation policies to get their customers to agree to future changes.”

Representatives from Visa and the BBB could not be immediately reached for comment. A FTC spokesperson said that an agency representative was not available because government offices are shut down due to inclement weather.

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