Bill aims to protect consumers from falling for ‘free’ offers


Enticing free offers for a product or service are found all over television and the Internet. But are they really free?

Consumers can get stuck canceling a service or product that was advertised as free but then started charging, or a company that continues to charge for something they didn’t want anymore.

“Traditionally it’s happened with magazine subscriptions. There have been situations recently involving satellite radio companies, people trying to cancel and aren’t able to cancel,” explained Stephen Levins, executive director of the state’s Office of Consumer Protection.

That’s why a legislative bill aims to create some peace of mind for Hawaii residents.

Right now, companies only have to tell you that your contract is being automatically renewed. They don’t need your okay.

“It just becomes a veritable phone tree craziness to try to get through to them. I mean, they create barriers for people to cancel the service or the product,” Levins said.

State Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran, D-Wailuku, Waihee, Kahului, is hoping to take a bite out of what he calls deceptive and false advertising.

He’s introduced a bill that would make it easier for people to know exactly what they’re getting into and how to say “no more.”

“Everyone’s probably gotten those offers when they say go ahead and try this and then after a month we’ll start charging you,” Keith-Agaran said, “so it may be free or it may be very low-priced initially.”

If signed into law, SB464 would:

  • Require that a company let you know that your credit card will be automatically charged and require your approval.
  • Force companies to clearly display the rules and conditions of a contract in a font size larger than the rest of the contract.
  • Add more options for consumers to contact companies, like a toll-free phone number, email address and postal address for customers who want to opt out of a contract.

The bill wouldn’t apply to health clubs since rules already regulate how they operate.

Levins says the bill helps level the playing field between companies and their customers.

“Sometimes companies just have to be told flat out that this is what you have to have. You have to make it conspicuous because some companies will try to take advantage of consumers by burying it in the fine print,” he said.

So how do you avoid getting into this situation in the first place? Consumer advocates offer the following tips:

  • Beware of anyone offering something for free since there’s a chance you may end up paying for it.
  • Know what kind of fees you are committing to.
  • If you give a company your credit card information, monitor your statements for any unauthorized charges.

If you have a consumer concern, or are interested in becoming an Action Line volunteer, call at 591-0222 weekdays 11 a.m.-1 p.m. or send an email to actionline@khon2.com.

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