Consumers burned by free smokeless cigarette offer BBB reports

Consumers who tried to take advantage of “free” Internet offers for smokeless cigarettes say they were burned by unexpected charges that totaled $100 or more, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) warns.

Customers from 44 states have filed more than 430 complaints against Direct E-Cig <http://CBBB.pr-optout.com/Url.aspx?516894x803941x-238788>  of Naples, Fla., and London, England, in the last year. More than a dozen of those complaints have come from Wisconsin residents.

Direct E-Cig has an “F” grade with the BBB, the lowest grade possible.

Randall Hoth, Wisconsin BBB president and CEO, said Direct E-Cig failed to answer 170 of the complaints.

“The complaints point to a significant and ongoing pattern of problems with Direct E-Cig,” Hoth said. “In most cases, consumers say they ordered what they thought was a free starter kit, only to find out later that the company billed their credit cards for $100, $200, or more. The cigarettes may be smokeless, but there is no question that a lot of customers felt they were watching their hard-earned dollars go up in smoke.”

On its website, Direct E-Cig calls its product “a revolutionary electronic smoking device designed as a great smoking alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes.” The site says smokers can smoke “virtually anywhere, without the flame, ash, tar or carbon monoxide.”

Direct E-Cig is among several distributors of smokeless cigarettes. Other companies also offer free or discounted starter kits and then bill customers for the full price or enroll them in an ongoing program to receive cartridge refills and other products.

In response to some of the complaints, Direct E-Cig told the BBB its website notes that consumers must go through a cancellation process within 15 days “to avoid being billed the full price of the kit of $109.95 and future monthly shipments.”  Several consumers said they received direct email solicitations from the company and never saw the cancellation policy.

Even if consumers are dissatisfied with the product and follow the return policy exactly, it appears that the so-called free trial offer will end up costing them money. The website notes that Direct E-Cig charges $7.50 for each opened or missing cartridge and a $10 restocking fee on all returns.

A woman from Eagle River, Wis., said she responded to an internet ad that said “try for free”, provided her bank debit card number and took advantage of what she thought was a free, electronic cigarette, cartridges and charger.  Per the ad, she assumed all she’d have to pay was $4.95 for shipping.  She later received a charge for $109.90 which Direct E-Cig refused to refund.  She said the offer is “deceptive” and “It is very clear to me they have this site set up to lure people in and make them believe they are getting a free e-cig.”

A woman from Oshkosh said her child, a minor, ordered this as a prop for a musical production, but now she is receiving additional shipments–and charges–for $89.95 on her credit card. She returned the second package and says “the Post Office highly recommended I refer to the BBB since there is no doubt the package was returned and this company is trying to stick me with a charge I never authorized.”

A Hammond, Wis. woman said she was under the impression she would have to pay only $4.95 for shipping, but was shocked when she received a charge for $104.00. She said that her product did not work and the company refused to replace it.

A Deerfield, Wis. woman said, “This is false advertisement. I can buy a similar product at the service station in town for $10.”

A warning in small print on the Direct E-Cig website notes that “This product contains nicotine, a highly addictive substance. It has not been approved by the FDA as a smoke cessation device.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers about potential health risks associated with electronic cigarettes.  The FDA has said the products can increase nicotine addiction among young people and may lead them to try other tobacco products including conventional cigarettes.

The BBB offers the following advice for consumers who are considering taking advantage of free or low-cost trial offers for smokeless cigarettes or other products:

*             Be very cautious of committing to trial offers, especially when you are asked to supply credit card information. Often, these offers require you to pay the full price for the product or automatically enroll you in an ongoing program as soon as the trial period is over.

*             Consumers often report difficulty canceling their agreements, even if they try to follow all requirements.

*             Understand that, in some cases, these companies can supply your contact information to other businesses.

*             Check out BBB Business Reviews by going to www.bbb.org or by calling (800) 273-1002.

The Federal Trade Commission has created a new video highlighting the costs hiding in some free trials.  Free Trial Offers shows you how to check out a free trial before you sign up, and what to do if you find yourself enrolled in one without your permission: in short, getting charged for things you don’t want and didn’t order.

Also, be sure to watch this video and others on a variety of consumer protection topics on the FTC’s YouTube channel.  For more on free trials, visit ftc.gov/freetrials. And this page includes a code for the video, if you’d like to post to directly to your site:  http://www.ftc.gov/multimedia/video/scam-watch/free-trial-offers.shtm.

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