NEW YORK - Earlier this year, consumers who thought that they were requesting a free trial of a tooth whitener from an Internet site soon found withdrawals of $106.90 from their bank accounts or similar charges to their credit cards, according to a nonprofit consumer education group.

Consumer Action, based in San Francisco, said it appeared that people who asked for the free samples were automatically enrolled in a recurring payments program for the product, whether they wanted it or not.

In this case, most of the victims of the scam had federal law on their side to get their money back, said Linda Sherry, spokeswoman for the group.

There are are more than two dozen consumer protection laws aimed at keeping people safe in dealings that range from check writing to credit and debit card payments, setting the interest rates on loans, investing, data privacy and accuracy of credit reports.

But, Sherry points out, "some of them can be confusing, so consumers have to make sure they're taking the right steps" in filing complaints and claims in a timely manner if something goes wrong.

- The Fair Credit Billing Act gives consumers the right to dispute charges on their credit card accounts and either withhold payment or seek a refund for a billing error. It also allows consumers to dispute charges if they're dissatisfied with the quality of the goods delivered.

- The Electronic Fund Transfer Act limits consumers' liability if there's been an unauthorized use of an ATM card, debit card or other electronic banking device.

"A lot of people have credit cards, and they use them for multiple transactions," she said. FDIC's call center, which she manages, "gets a lot of questions and complaints about billing errors."

Kincaid said the FDIC, which is in Washington, D.C., tries to educate consumers about their rights under the laws, including advising that they read their monthly statements and take action as soon as they discover something amiss.

If a complaint is filed, either through the "consumer protection" section (http://www.fdic.gov ) or on the hot line at 1-877-275-3342, the FDIC can go to a financial institution and make sure it's following proper procedures to resolve the consumer's complaint.

Andrea Rock, a senior editor at Consumer Reports, the publishing arm of the nonprofit Consumers Union testing and information organization in Yonkers, N.Y., said it's important for consumers to understand that protection against unauthorized charges is better for credit cards than for debit cards.

"With credit cards, the liability is limited to $50 or less by law, no matter what," Rock said. "In fact, most credit card companies have a zero liability policy."

She added that consumers also have greater flexibility in disputing charges for goods that arrived damaged or were not what the consumer ordered.

Consumers only are covered by the $50 liability limit if they notify their financial institution within two business days of discovering a problem of unauthorized use of their debit cards. "Wait longer, and that liability can jump to $500," Rock said.

Consumer Reports advises that consumers telephone their card issuers right away if they discover a problem. But they should also follow up with a written complaint sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the "billing inquiries" address, not the payment address.

Consumers who don't get satisfaction from the card issuers can follow up with complaints to state consumer or banking agencies as well as federal regulators, including the FDIC, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Reserve.

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