The advert offers a wonder slimming supplement with "100% satisfaction guaranteed". For just pounds 4.95 postage and packaging, applicants receive a free bottle of the herbal remedy NutriBerry Slim for a 14-day "risk-free" trial. The website also suggests a free try-out of a natural detoxification product Vita Cleanse for a further pounds 6.95 p&p.
My postbag bulges with similar stories from scores more people beguiled by the promise of a "free trial". In fact, the terms and conditions of the offer, which are hard to find, commit those who sign up to an ongoing supply of the products at pounds 93 and pounds 89 a month, unless they cancel and return the bottles within 14 days of ordering.
Those who have tried to do so report that calls are ignored and emails bounced back. Others have received their trial package well outside the 14-day deadline, invalidating their chance to cancel. And a worrying number have been told by their banks that nothing can be done to prevent the payments pouring out.
"My credit card company says I cannot stop these payments unless NutriBerry Slim agrees," says another reader. "I put a stop on them two days after applying for the trial, but they were still paid two weeks later. I have cancelled my card but the bank tells me that won't help."
The ignorance of banking staff is almost as dismaying as the NutriBerry Slim rip-off. Customers applying for the free trial have, in fact, signed up to a continuous payment authority (CPA) which allows a company to take recurring payments off a credit or debit card.
However, customers can cancel a CPA whenever they want and, although it's best to do this through the company taking the payments, they have the legal right to do it through the card issuer without the company's agreement.
The banks' confusion is all too familiar to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). "We often hear from consumers who say their bank has incorrectly told them that it cannot cancel the CPA and they have to get in touch with the business that set it up," a spokeswoman says.
"A bank must cancel a CPA if a consumer asks and, if they don't, the consumer may have the right to reclaim from the bank any amounts taken. This was something the
For the many victims of the offer, tenacity is the key. The FOS says it would expect complainants to show that they had made reasonable efforts to cancel through the trader before ruling that a card issuer owes them a refund.
NutriBerry Slim customers are stalled by its insistence that they obtain a return merchandise authorisation (RMA) before they can cancel their order. This can only be done by telephone and many customers who have tried, say they have found their calls unanswered or staff uncooperative. This is enough to go to the card issuer and demand that future payments be stopped. If the bank pleads impotence, the FOS will step in. "We're able to resolve the majority of these cases quickly," says the spokeswoman. "Often just pointing out that a bank is obliged to cancel a CPA when the consumer contacts it is usually enough."
The question remains how outfits like NutriBerry Slim get away with bamboozling so many with apparent impunity. The company behind the product is
However, Healthy Essentials is listed as dormant on the companies register. Customer support is answered by an operative who claims that she and Healthy Essentials are based in
No US address is given on the website and the
"We've therefore taken the recent decision not to investigate complaints about overseas-based operators but, instead, to raise consumer awareness. We'll shortly be publishing a news article on our website to highlight the general problem with ads like this and, in doing so, hopefully, help warn consumers."
Given that companies like this can avoid the powers of
In the case of NutriBerry Slim and Vita Cleanse there is no scientific evidence to back up their health claims and the internet abounds with complaints from those who feel they've lost money because of the company's business practices.
Jones says the expensive "free trial" has had an impact: "It has actually resulted in weight loss, but that's because of the stress and worry. I haven't dared take any of the tablets."
THE ABC OF A CPA
Millions of consumers set up regular automatic payments for anything from magazine subscriptions to gym membership and travel insurance. Some will be direct debits and standing orders, but others will be "continuous payment authorities" (also called recurring payment authorities, recurring transactions or recurring payments).
CPAs, also beloved by payday lenders, appear similar to a direct debit but they lack the same protective guarantees and allow the trader more flexibility over how much they remove from your account. So how do you know you've signed up? The clue is in the demand for the long card number, rather than bank account details on the registration form. Since the fact that ensuing monthly payments will be debited is buried down in the terms and conditions, few realise what they are letting themselves in for.
Many organisations say CPAs can only be cancelled by the retailer or business - that is wrong. You can go direct to your bank/card company and ask them to cancel the payments.
Consumers say they have been unable to cancel payments after signing up for the Nutriberry Slim herbal remedy.
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