RealStyle

How to Fall for a Stupid Skincare Scam

Not all Internet scams are as high-tech and sophisticated as you might think. Even if you know perfectly well that no face cream works miracles, you may be tempted to try a "free trial" for "only $4.95."

Caption-01: Some online skincare scammers use grotesque and/or amateurish-looking photos like this one, maybe so you'll think they aren't slick, sneaky con men. But they are. Photo: Oxygenius

We all know that the Internet, useful and entertaining as it may be, can be a dangerous place. You hear about people who buy something online and, next thing they know, some stranger is using their credit card to charge a lot of high-end stereo components, several thousand dollars' worth of international phone cards and some racy tattoos.

Or people who fail to secure their home Wi-Fi wake up one morning to find that some drive-by entrepreneur has weaseled his way into their hard drive, copied all their passwords, emptied their IRA, and absconded to Fiji with the proceeds.

Or maybe they secured their Wi-Fi with a WEP key they couldn't remember, got locked out of the Internet, and ended up so frustrated that, when some random young person with an odd accent called from "Windows" to explain that there was a serious problem with their computer that he had been assigned to fix, they happily let him take the controls for a few minutes. He then swiftly downloaded all their bank account info, their Social Security numbers and their maternal grandmothers' maiden names, so he could sell their identities to a criminal who put them to far more imaginative uses than the legitimate owners ever had.

These are the big worries, but you can also fall for an online scam as old and low-tech as the pigeon drops Joe Friday (ask your grandmother) used to investigate when he was on the LAPD bunco squad. I did.

What I learned: It's still the case, as Woody Guthrie sang, that "some folks rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen." But nowadays, they also do it with your trusty old PC, even if it's so old it's still running Windows XP. And -- get this -- it can turn out to be perfectly legal, or close enough that you have no recourse.

All you need to do is skip reading all the fine print when you're ordering your "free trial" jar of miracle wrinkle cream.

Sure, you could read that fine print -- if you could find your reading glasses, or remember which key activates your computer's zoom function. But the scammers don't want you to so they make the small print really small -- 6-point Arial -- plus it's in pale gray on white, which makes it nearly invisible. So it looks totally inconsequential compared to all the exciting capital letters urging you to sign up for your free trial RIGHT NOW because today is the last day and Supplies Are Limited!!!

It looks even more boring next to the revelation that Dr. Oz, who's probably never heard of the stuff, is so excited about its remarkable active ingredients. Not to mention the truly amazing product reviews from real people just like you who can't believe how this stuff has turned back the clock for their skin. And the juicy (though clearly made up) gossip about how Ellen DeGeneres has been using this miracle face cream for years, but she can't tell anybody because of her contract with CoverGirl cosmetics.

It was the line about Ellen's "Backstage Skincare Secret -- Her Anti-Aging Trick Finally Exposed!" that I clicked on. I've been curious about those cheesy "one weird trick" ads for a while, but, until then, I'd never actually clicked on one.

This one turned out to be for two supposed miracle face creams, Oxygenius and Wrinkle Rewind, made by a company called, no kidding, Truth and Beauty. (Somebody has a sense of humor.)

But the names of these free-trial skincare products and the companies that sell them seem to be endlessly interchangeable: Sometimes they call the product LifeCell or Kollagen Intensiv or RVTL or AuraVie or DermaSet or Dermalift. They seem to make up new product names as fast as they can think of them, but you'll notice that they use the same models and the same ad copy and the same reviews from the same fake consumer advice bureaus.

You might argue that even respectable marketers of so-called legit wrinkle creams are engaging in something very much like a scam. The FDA insists that nothing sold as a cosmetic can change the structure of your skin; only prescription medicines that have been double-blind tested for effectiveness on human subjects can make those claims. (It's why most skincare product marketing makes it a point to promise only that the appearance of your skin will change -- and it's why Revlon founder Charles Revson said the skincare business, when it comes down to it, is selling "hope in a jar.")

What's definitively sleazy about these purported Wrinkle Rewinders and Oxygeniuses is that they offer you a free trial for only $4.95 for one product, $3.95 for the other -- but when you sign up for it, as the invisible small print you're not meant to read explains, you've unknowingly agreed that, if you don't cancel within 14 days, they can charge your credit card for the "full value" -- $74.99 each -- of the "free trial" products they sent you. (They actually charged my Visa $79.95 for one and $78.49 for the other -- which must mean they charged me twice for the $4.95 and $3.95 shipping charges.) And that's not all: You've also agreed that they can charge you for more of the stuff each month in the interests of efficiency.

I tried to cancel, but they make it very difficult. According to various complaints posted online, if customer service answers, they tell you to call back later, preferably after the trial period is over, or else they try to persuade you to pay a lesser amount. In my case, every time I called the "customer service" number, I got a recording that explained that, due to a catastrophic typhoon in the Philippines, their call center was down, and I should leave a phone message. I did, several times, but got no response. I also sent a raft of emails; ditto.

What surprised me more was my bank's response. When I first called to ask them to invalidate the $79.95 and $78.49 charges, the nice lady in customer service said she couldn't reverse the charges because -- even though I could see them as pending on my online account statement -- they hadn't officially been charged yet. I'd have to call back later, after the charges were official. But she made it sound as if, then, it would be no problem.

I meant to, but life intervened. By the time I made the call another nice bank lady told me I'd missed the 60-day window for appealing fraudulent charges. Besides, when I explained the circumstances, she as much as told me it was my own fault because I'd failed to read the invisibly small print. She argued that I hadn't been defrauded or deceived because the small print was there, even though it was quite obviously designed not to be read. Because who'd sign up for a free trial that could end up costing $167.34?

Result: $167.34 down the drain. It reminded me of one of the (I assume fake) customer testimonials on the Oxygenius website: "Had no idea you could get results like this," an imaginary customer posted.

Me neither, or I wouldn't've signed up for the "free" trial.

One question: Why was I so trusting? I suspect that, when I went looking for the answer to some question or other on the Internet that day, I unconsciously carried with me a set of expectations derived from my experience with other information sources, like newspapers, magazines and public libraries. After all, no respectable newspaper would publish an ad that leads you to believe you're signing up for a "free trial," and then socks you with a credit card charge for hundreds of dollars.

The websites that profit from these ads apparently have no such scruples.

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