Every week, Marketplace receives dozens of emails from Canadians telling us about all kinds of consumer concerns and deceptive schemes.

Renovation ripoffs.

Moving company mishaps.

Dubious drugstore remedies.  

But there's one scam that has generated more angry emails than all the rest: the not-so-free face cream trial.

Marketplace has received hundreds of emails from viewers who've been stung by surprise credit card charges they couldn't get reversed after signing up for what they thought were "risk-free" product trials.

  • WATCH| MARKETPLACE reveals how you can avoid subscription traps Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in N.L.) on CBC 

What they actually signed up for is an online scheme known as a subscription trap, which uses sneaky fine print and deceptive marketing techniques, such as fake articles, bogus endorsements from respected celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Céline Dion and phoney surveys from legitimate companies, to trick people into paying for products and services they don't want.

Marketplace has uncovered exactly how it works, including the motives and methods of the mysterious merchants and marketers involved; why it continues to work despite more than 26,000 complaints to the Better Business Bureau in the last year alone; and what credit card companies could do to stop it.

Costly terms

Judy Mayer of Aurora, Ont., is one of those Canadians who paid a steep price for signing up for what appeared to be a great offer.

Mayer was on Facebook back in January when she noticed an ad for an anti-aging cream featuring an endorsement from Dragons' Den star Arlene Dickinson. Mayer paid the shipping in order to get the "free trial."

'I had no idea that I was to cancel a subscription.' - Judy Mayer

A few months later, Mayer discovered charges totalling nearly $400 on her Mastercard. The charges were from Rejuva Essence, so she called the company's customer service line and was told that because she hadn't cancelled her subscription and returned the original sample within 14 days, she was charged for three more bottles, as set out in the offer's terms and conditions.

"I had no idea that I was to cancel a subscription," Mayer told Marketplace. "They did not tell me anything about it."

Mayer insists she never saw any mention of a 14-day trial period and the recurring charges when she signed up for the offer — which is precisely the goal of a subscription trap, authorities say.

When Marketplace's Asha Tomlinson called Rejuva Essence's customer service, she was told "once you place the order, you start the trial period. If the trial period passes and you haven't cancelled, the system believes you wish to continue your treatment."

When Tomlinson pointed out those details weren't easy to find, she was told "those are the terms and the conditions" and they're outlined on the Rejuva Essence website.

As with other face cream offers, details about Rejuva Essence's recurring charges and trial period are accessible only via a small, faint "Terms" hyperlink at the bottom of the page.

Mastercard told Mayer it was "very aware" of these face cream companies, but there was nothing it could do because the additional charges were explained on Rejuva Essence's website.

And, as Marketplace has learned, Mayer's experience is far from unique.

How the scam works

The scam starts with a merchant who decides to sell a product online, whether it's face cream, garcinia cambogia, weight-loss pills or teeth-whitening products. As the U.S.-based Federal Trade Commission has pointed out, the products used in subscription traps are largely irrelevant; the primary purpose, after all, is to acquire credit card numbers.

The merchant creates a website or landing/checkout page offering free trials of, in this case, anti-aging face cream. The merchant then buries the recurring fees in the fine print of the terms and conditions. After what is usually a 14-day trial period, the customer automatically becomes enrolled in a subscription if they don't cancel, and their credit card gets billed every month, sometimes for hundreds of dollars.

subtrap

Sample of a merchant website with recurring fees found within the terms and conditions hyperlink.

The merchants are constantly changing their product names to avoid bad online reviews, according to the RCMP's anti-fraud unit and the Better Business Bureau. Abella Mayfair, Image Revive, Face Replen, Hydroluxe, Chantel St Claire, Renuvica, Nuvella and Skin Balance are just some of the 371 product names the Mounties have uncovered.

RCMP fraud investigator Jeff Thomson says the merchants will also use different bank processor names on credit card statements. He says authorities have found more than 312 accounts linked to the scheme at 84 different banks in 14 different countries, particularly in China, Latvia, the U.S. and Canada.

Door-to-door salespeople of the internet

But the sellers also need advertising to direct people to their offers, so they harness the power of what's called affiliate marketing.

Sometimes referred to as the door-to-door salespeople of the internet, cost-per-action (CPA) affiliate marketers are often a creative and highly motivated bunch since they don't get paid unless you sign up for whatever offer they're pushing.

Marketplace has found commissions for CPA affiliate marketers ranging from $30 to $50 for promoting and getting people to sign up for face cream trials.

affiliatejobs

Merchants place job offers like these for CPA affiliate marketers on affiliate network websites.

While many affiliate marketers do legitimate and ethical work for upstanding businesses, authorities say some CPA affiliate marketers use deceptive tools like fake news articles with phoney celebrity endorsements, or fake pop-up surveys that appear to come from reputable sources such as Costco, Air Canada and Rogers, to catch people in subscription traps.

Arlene Dickinson of Dragons' Den told Marketplace she felt physically sick when she discovered her name was being used to promote face cream products she knew nothing about.

"It was horrible," Dickinson said. "To use my image and to lure people in, it is just reprehensible."

Dickinson

Dragons' Den star Arlene Dickinson was appalled when she learned her name was being used to promote face cream products she knew nothing about. (CBC)

Dickinson's lawyers told her they couldn't stop it because they couldn't find those responsible.

"They're changing addresses, locations, even their website is changed on a regular basis, so ... they're slick," she said.

"I think the people running these scams are crooks, they're hucksters … that is not entrepreneurial, that's just pure opportunistic bullshit."

What does the law say?

There are laws on the books that, at least in theory, should protect Canadians from subscription traps.

Sections 74.01 and 52 of the Competition Act outlaw misleading advertising, which can include deceptive marketing as well as "recurring charges" in the terms and conditions.

In the case of face cream trials, it's misleading for consumers to see the word "free" everywhere and then discover there are hidden charges — the overall impression is the offer is for a free trial.

In these kinds of subscription traps, both the merchant and the affiliate marketer can be held responsible; the merchant for hiding the charges and the affiliate marketer for creating misleading advertising.

But Barry Elliott of the RCMP's anti-fraud unit says finding and policing those merchants and marketers is no easy task.

"As far as an investigator putting this package together, it would take a lot of work, and getting all the information from the other countries, everything, would be a nightmare — and they know that," Elliott said. "Those responsible have figured how to make this thing as difficult as possible for us to track down."

Role of credit card companies

Compounding the frustration for victims is the fact credit companies rarely reverse the charges.

Most of the consumers who contacted Marketplace about the scam, including Mayer, failed to get their money back.

Both Visa and Mastercard told Marketplace that cardholders will not be charged for fraudulent transactions through their zero liability policies, but unlike the RCMP's anti-fraud unit and the Competition Bureau, they don't seem to consider subscription traps to be fraudulent.

Mastercard's customer service told a Marketplace producer that consumers are responsible for finding any charges that may be listed in the terms and conditions, even if they're in "difficult places to see."

But Elliott says credit card companies should stop blaming cardholders and holding them responsible for the recurring charges hidden in the terms and conditions.

"I have to give up my house, I have to give up my newborn child, I have to murder someone because I clicked on the terms and conditions? I mean it becomes ridiculous," the Mountie said.

'If the banks and credit card companies eliminated this option, it could all be over.' - Jeff Thomson, RCMP anti-fraud unit

Marketplace asked Mastercard and Visa why they continue to hold cardholders responsible, given that the Competition Bureau and the RCMP consider subscription traps to be fraudulent.

Mastercard Canada declined a request for an interview, but said in a statement that "cardholders should carefully read terms and conditions of any offer."

Visa Canada had similar advice, suggesting cardholders "look for buried terms and conditions that may bind you to recurring payments or make cancellations/returns difficult." The company also said refund decisions are managed by card-issuers, such as TD and Scotiabank, and not Visa Canada.

Visa Canada did say credit card companies are "responsible for ensuring that their merchants are properly disclosing their Terms & Conditions and address any merchants that are generating excessive disputes as a result."

This policy hasn't seemed to help many cardholders, however.

The authority to make sure recurring charges aren't simply listed in the terms and conditions means credit card companies could have the power to end subscription traps, said Jeff Thomson of the RCMP's anti-fraud unit.

"If the banks and credit card companies eliminated this option, it could all be over."