Against her better judgment, Jill Modell-Dion clicked on a Facebook ad in December that promised a free trial of an advanced anti-aging serum from a company called Aurora Bella.

Shortly after receiving the two trial-size bottles of skin cream, Modell-Dion discovered that the internet-based company, which lists its return address as 165 Pleasant Ave. in South Portland, had charged $200 to her credit card. But there is no company named Aurora Bella in South Portland or anywhere in Maine. The address belongs to Ship-Right Solutions, an order fulfillment company whose business dealings with online sellers have sparked more than 250 consumer complaints to the Maine Attorney General’s Office over the past 15 years.

Jill Modell-Dion of Cape Coral, Fla.

“The next time I looked at my (credit card) bill, there were two charges of $99 each,” she said. “I gave no authorization for those charges.”

Modell-Dion, who lives in Cape Coral, Florida, had unwittingly become the latest victim of a growing number of beauty product distributors that use deceptive practices to sell their goods online.

Hundreds of such products – possibly thousands – are being advertised online in a similar manner: They promise a free trial and ask the buyer to provide credit card information to cover a nominal payment for shipping. Two weeks later, the buyer’s card is charged for the full price of the product, usually about $100.

Unless the customer calls to cancel, the seller continues to send another bottle and charge the customer’s card another $100 every month, indefinitely.

Modell-Dion said she called the phone number listed on Aurora Bella’s website to demand a refund as soon as the charges appeared on her card. But by then, the two-week “free trial” period had lapsed. The company canceled Modell-Dion’s monthly subscription but would not refund the $200, saying she should have read the fine print on the website before placing her order.

“They do this very deceiving, short ad – they don’t disclose things clearly and properly,” Modell-Dion said. “It takes you 30 days to figure out what the (expletive) they’re doing.”

As for the products themselves, Modell-Dion said they came in tiny bottles and were about as effective as something you could buy at the local drugstore for $1.50.

OVER 250 CONSUMER COMPLAINTS

Aurora Bella’s listed address for product returns, and the phone number for customer complaints, belong to Ship-Right Solutions, which offers order fulfillment and other services to dozens of different online product sellers on a contract basis.

Jill Modell-Dion said Aurora Bella items she bought arrived without packing slips. South Portland’s Ship-Right Solutions handles returns for the firm, but doesn’t ship its products. Photo courtesy of Jill Modell-Dion

Ship-Right’s business model, which involves not asking too many questions before agreeing to do business with a particular client, has made it the object of many consumers’ anger, including Modell-Dion’s.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office has received more than 250 consumer complaints involving Ship-Right over the past 14 years, according to Assistant Attorney General Brendan O’Neil. Of those, roughly 110 consumers have requested mediation of their complaints by the office’s consumer mediation service, he said.

Over the past two years, the state Attorney General’s Office has procured judicial orders or settlements against three clients of Ship-Right. The targets of those cases were health supplements sellers Direct Alternatives and Original Organics LLC, Better Health Nutritionals and Health Research Laboratories.

In those cases, all of which involved deceptive marketing practices, Ship-Right’s tangential role was noted by the Attorney General’s Office, and the company was not listed as a defendant.

O’Neil said he is legally barred from elaborating on Ship-Right’s responsibility in those cases beyond what is described in the official legal complaints.

“What I can say on the record is, to the extent that consumers have complaints about or relating to Ship-Right Solutions or 165 Pleasant Avenue, our office would be interested in hearing about them,” he said.

UNINVOLVED IN PRODUCTION, SALES

Ship-Right President Drew Graham said his company does not actually ship Aurora Bella products like it does for other clients, but that it does handle product returns for the company. Graham noted that Ship-Right is not involved in the production, sales or marketing of Aurora Bella.

“We are a service provider,” he said. “We don’t sell the product. We don’t make the ads up.”

Graham said Ship-Right handles fulfillment for many different companies, including top-tier online retailers such as Wayfair. He said it is difficult to obtain in-depth information about the sales and marketing practices of each business his company works with.

But Graham acknowledged that Ship-Right doesn’t ask too many questions. “This is kind of a volume game, to be honest,” he said. “We don’t overly scrutinize these folks.”

If Ship-Right does learn that a company is engaging in deceptive marketing practices, it tries to steer clear of that company, Graham said. However, he said that as a smaller player in the industry, Ship-Right cannot always afford to be choosy about its clients.

“We’re not a Fortune 500 company,” Graham said. “We have to take some chances.”

Modell-Dion said one of her issues with Ship-Right is that the customer service representative she spoke to refused to give her any information about the company that markets and sells Aurora Bella products.

Ship-Right Solutions at 165 Pleasant Ave. in South Portland. Google photo

“I asked her for the corporate phone number, and she said she wouldn’t give it to me,” she said.

Modell-Dion said that when her beauty products arrived in the mail, the boxes contained no packing slips indicating what she had purchased, the amount she was charged, or how to reach the seller if she was dissatisfied.

‘WE’RE NOT THE BAD GUYS IN THIS’

Graham said Aurora Bella products are shipped by another company, and that Ship-Right would never ship a product without a packing slip.

“Everything that leaves here has a packing slip,” he said. “I assure you, we’re not the bad guys in this.”

Modell-Dion said she managed to track down the parent company of Aurora Bella by doing her own research online. According to Modell-Dion, the parent company has an office in St. Petersburg, Florida, and operates under a variety of names including Decollage Institute Cream, Decollage LLC, LF Skin Cream, Replenish Your Skin Health and others.

The Better Business Bureau of West Florida gives Decollage an “F” rating with more than 30 customer complaints.

“I wish I would have read the BBB reviews regarding Decollage Institute Cream before purchasing the free trial,” one complaint says. “I was charged $186 for the products because I didn’t cancel within 14 days. I had no idea that I was supposed to do this as the ‘terms’ were listed under ‘Online Support.’ ”

The Portland Press Herald was unable to confirm that Decollage is the maker of Aurora Bella products, because the company refused to answer media questions.

“I’m unable to provide you with any information related to the company,” said a representative who refused to give her name.

Federal Trade Commission attorney Kati Daffan said scams involving free or low-cost trial offers have been around for years. They are particularly prevalent among beauty, health and wellness products, she said, but such scams can be found involving most any product or service.

There is nothing inherently illegal about a free trial offer that triggers an automatic monthly subscription, said Daffan, assistant director of the FTC’s Division of Marketing Practices. But what can make it illegal is the lack of adequate disclosure, she said.

“Unless that’s clearly and conspicuously disclosed, it’s not legal,” Daffan said. She recommended that consumers who believe they have been scammed check their bank card statements carefully and file a complaint with the FTC.

Rachel Vrabel, a Florida-based blogger who runs the website WomensBlogTalk.com, has been studying beauty product free-trial scams for the past five years. Vrabel has amassed a list of more than 500 products sold online through deceptive practices, and she said there are still hundreds more.

In some cases, the deceptive free trial offers are combined with other shady marketing practices, such as falsely claiming that a product has been endorsed by a major celebrity or featured on a popular TV show such as “Shark Tank.”

A GAME OF WHACK-A-MOLE

Trying to keep up with all the companies offering bogus free trials is akin to playing whack-a-mole, Vrabel said. A product website will pop up on the internet for a few weeks or months, which will be heavily advertised on Facebook, Google and other services before disappearing.

“It makes it impossible for people (who want to cancel their product subscription) to find a phone number or even find the site where they ordered it from,” she said.

Vrabel said her inbox is filled each week with comment after comment from readers about their bad experiences with free trial offers. Ninety-nine percent of products sold via free trials are garbage, she said.

“They’re basically subpar moisturizers,” she said. “Certainly not worth $100.”

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jcraiganderson

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