Maralee Dawn, a Langley, B.C., senior, is furious about being billed more than $400 after signing up for a “free trial” for a new anti-wrinkle cream.
Dawn thought she'd agreed to pay only shipping costs for Belle Complex, which is marketed online.
The website shows a flawless model and makes several claims about the cream’s “Botox-like results” and its ability to reduce the depth of wrinkles.
“I thought, that's what I need, and it’s a trial offer for $4.68," said the former children’s entertainer.
At 60, the retired ventriloquist said she was starting to notice wrinkles, so she agreed to pay shipping for Belle Complex and a second product called Hydradiance, which she expected would cost a total of $10.
'They’re stealing from me'
But that's not what happened.
“To my shock I had two withdrawals, one over $100, and another $90 on my bank statement,” she said.
Dawn said she only entered her Visa number on one website, yet within a month, two separate companies had debited her RBC Visa more than $420.
She said she was angry and embarrassed that she'd unknowingly agreed to an expensive monthly contract.
“They’re stealing from me. They’re taking this money,” she told CBC News.
RBC Visa Charges
March 8 $5.34 NTS Simple Nutrition Shop (authorized)
March 8 $5.34 WGM Hydradiance (authorized)
March 22 $115.40 NTS*SimpleNutrition Shop
March 26 $91.53 WGM*Hydradiance
April 7 $112.68 NTS*SimpleNutrition Shop
April 11 $90.08 WGM*Hydradiance
Total: $420.37 Refund April 13: $106.61 NTS*SimpleNutrition Shop
Dawn says she did not authorize $409.64 in charges and is now in the process of disputing them all, but so far has only received a refund for $106.61.
She wants RBC Visa to reverse the charges for the remaining $303.03 she said she is owed.
“That’s really a lot of money to me, because I am on disability right now, and I felt really stupid,” she said.
'This cream was not amazing'
Dawn said the product did not live up to its aggressive marketing claims.
“This cream was not amazing. In fact, I couldn’t use the cream, because I put a little on and it burned right away.”
Dawn said she mailed the small jar of Belle Complex back, along with the second sample that arrived a few weeks later. She said she never did receive the three jars of cream for which she was billed and never refunded.
At first, Dawn said, RBC was not helpful or sympathetic.
“They’ve been rude to me every time I went to them," she said. "They directed me back to the company and when I went to the company, they declined to pay me.”
Dawn said RBC is now helping her dispute the charges.
CBC News contacted RBC about Dawn's problem, but it said owing to privacy rules and confidentiality it could not discuss her case with CBC.
Steve Szentesi, a lawyer who specializes in advertising law, said there are a number of concerns with Belle Complex’s website.
“[These are] performance claims that I really question whether they are backed up in terms of being more youthful, reducing wrinkles, eliminating wrinkles," said Szentesi.
"There's a law that says you have to back them up with adequate and proper testing."
Szentesi said the marketing may violate Canada’s Competition Act and B.C.'s consumer protection laws since it does not disclose the true price up front.
When Dawn signed up for the free trial, she unknowingly agreed to terms hidden in faint print, agreeing to buy both creams for $200 a month with automatic shipping every 30 days.
Szentesi said those terms need “to be in close proximity to the claim. It shouldn't be in mouse print. It should be intelligible to the average consumer.”
He said there could be fraud in the case of the second product for which Dawn was charged if there was never an intention to ship it.
“In a case where you are billed and you don't get any product whatsoever, that's a potential case for fraud,” he said. There are dozens of complaints online about these monthly marketing plans for several products.
Szentesi said this kind of online mass marketing is a multibillion dollar industry and Canada’s Competition Bureau could investigate if enough Canadians complain.
There have been complaints about these products with the Better Business Bureau, and several consumers have posted complaints on websites that track scams.
The company behind Belle Complex appears to be based in Arizona, but ships from a warehouse in Mississauga, Ont.
Its Canadian email address bounced back as undeliverable, but CBC did eventually reach customer support in the U.S. by email. Someone writing on behalf of PureAntiAgingSkin.com wrote CBC saying its terms for monthly billing are clear, and it will refund any customer who returns the product.
But Dawn is still waiting for those refunds.
'We go to great lengths'
The company said all customers agree to the terms and conditions before they buy.
“We go to great lengths to make sure that there is a link to the terms and conditions on each page, it wrote.
"The checkout page has a summary of the terms and conditions, and each customer must check that he/she agrees to the terms and conditions."
"We are sorry that this particular person failed to read or understand the terms and conditions before he/she placed the order. We have a very generous return policy in place for those customers who, for whatever reason, have misunderstood these terms and conditions.”
Consumer Protection BC said consumers should watch for smaller print and never give a credit card number for anything that is supposed to be free.
Consumers can go to their credit card company to stop payment or to try to seek a refund. They can also cancel their credit card to stop recurring charges.
“Somebody has to do something," Dawn said. "There has to be more people like me. This is not right.”
Consumer Protection BC. told CBC if Dawn contacts the agency, it will look into her case and investigate whether the terms on the website violate B.C.'s Consumer Protection Act.