Trading Standards has received more than 100 complaints from people in Northern Ireland about slimming scams recently.
Consumers who ordered a free sample weight loss product online believed that they were only paying for postage and packaging, according to the watchdog.
However, most complainants later discovered that they had unwittingly signed up to a £69-per-month regular supply of the product.
In some cases, consumers did not notice they had been making monthly payments for seven or eight months.
As February is Scams Awareness Month, Trading Standards Service (TSS) is warning everyone to be careful not to fall prey to such deception.
The caution comes after the organisation confirmed that consumers here lose millions of pounds every year on advance fee loan scams, computer virus scams, counterfeit goods, doorstep selling scams, foreign lotteries and other scams.
Belfast father-of-one Fred Farrow saw an online advertisement for a trial offer of some weight loss and body cleansing 'natural' herbal tablets. The advertiser was offering them at a trial price of only £2.49 for postage and packaging, so the 55-year-old civil servant ordered the tablets.
They arrived 14 days later – along with a letter stating that they would charge £69.95 per bottle from his credit card.
The letter mentioned he had a right to cancel and return the product for a full refund within 14 days of ordering.
However, as the tablets only arrived 14 days after he had placed the order, the cancellation period had lapsed, and two amounts of £69.95 plus the postage and packaging were already debited from his credit card account.
TSS said the full details of what consumers were signing up to were hidden deep within the detailed terms and conditions.
Damien Doherty, a TSS Fair Trading Area inspector, said people should always read the terms and conditions carefully before signing up to online offers.
"At the beginning of each year, many people resolve to lose weight and this is an opportune time for the scammers to take advantage of vulnerable people who are desperate to lose weight," he said.
"The scammers exploit that sense of desperation with a no-obligation 'free trial', and profit from it by signing consumers up to a monthly subscription without them knowing.
"When consumers try to cancel their subscription, they find that they cannot get through to the company on the telephone number provided or that the number simply does not work."
Scams to look out for:
- Computer scams – all variations on the Microsoft name (scammers generally purport to be calling from a legitimated company), PC Help, Quick Resolve, etc
- Weight loss pills – Slimvida, Mizulean (appear to be the same company), keytone premium & www.weightlossstrategy.com
- Counterfeits – some fake goods web addresses – www.abercrombiefitchco.co.uk (based in Hong Kong), www.radleybagsales.co.uk
Five scams that can catch people out...
1. Fake credit providers/online loan applications: The scammers prey on those who have a poor credit history or need money quickly. A person will typically reply to an advert for a fast loan and will have their application approved regardless of their credit history. Before they receive the loan, they are told they must pay an upfront fee to cover insurance for the loan. In most cases, consumers are asked to send money to India as "admin fees". Once this fee is paid, the victim does not hear from the company again and the loan is never received. Be very careful when dealing with loan companies that charge upfront fees. Don't believe adverts that a loan is guaranteed. Don't wire money to loan firms.
2. Fake websites selling counterfeit goods: The most common complaints are about GHD hair straighteners, UGG boots and jewellery but consumers have also reported buying fake goods ranging from make-up to iPods. The main areas of risk are auction sites and entirely fake websites. It's always best to stick to familiar brand-name or retailer websites. You can also use search engines to research a website to see if people have had problems with them. Shoppers should be aware that a site ending .co.uk does not mean the trader is based in the UK. A seller abroad can be impossible to trace.
3. Remote PC Support: In this latest scam, householders receive a phone call from a person claiming to represent major PC or software companies. Some of the callers claim that the consumer's home PC has a virus, system crash or is running slowly. They go on to say that they can resolve the 'problem' with the computer remotely – if the consumer gives them their credit card details and/or remote access to their PC. Be suspicious of unsolicited calls related to a security problem, even if they claim to represent a respected company. Never provide personal information, such as credit card or bank details, to an unsolicited caller. Do not go to a website, type anything into a computer, or follow any instruction from someone calling out of the blue.
4. Business-to-business charity scams: A telesales agent will call and ask if you want to place an advertisement in a publication for a seemingly good cause. The caller will give you the impression that the publisher is affiliated with local charities, emergency services, crime prevention and community health initiatives. The scammers associate themselves with a good cause to encourage you to place an order. Again, whatever they say they'll be producing either never gets published, or in such small quantities that it's of no use. The caller may also record the phone call and word what they say to sound like you are agreeing to place an advertisement.
5. Online ticket scams: You buy tickets from a website but after you have paid the tickets are not delivered and your calls and emails go unanswered. Sometimes you are told that a customer representative will meet you at the venue on the day but nobody turns up. You are left out of pocket and unable to attend the event. What do you know about the company you are buying from? Companies must supply the full geographic address where their business is established, not just a PO Box or mailbox number. Check out the address using a search engine.