Free? That'll Cost Ya.

freeThe word “free” is surely one of the most appealing in the English language, in many contexts. The allure of free goodies is a powerful draw for most of us, and a powerful tool for legitimate marketers online and off. Unfortunately, it’s also used by villainous sorts to hook unsuspecting consumers into scams of various types. Here are some tips to avoid being sucker punched by free offers that aren’t really free on the Web.

Take a close look at the site. Does it have a professional look and feel? Do the links work? Does it load properly? Does it use proper grammar and spelling? Although these aren’t proof that the site is legitimate, the absence of them is a sure sign of trouble. Stick to well-known sites, companies and brands. Also, check for things like copyright statements, privacy policies and terms of use on the site. Again, though they’re no guarantee of legitimacy, they are usually missing from scam sites.

Beware the pop-up. Although many legitimate sites and services use pop-up windows for one reason or another, be extra wary when following a pop-up advertising something free. Once you arrive at the site, if attempts to get more information about the free offer lead you to more pop-ups or to other sites, it’s time to click close.

If it’s free, why do they need your bank account information? Be extremely cautious about entering personal financial information on a website. Don’t do it unless you trust the site and know that it’s secure. For instance, you might be given the option to link your bank account to a credit card account that you manage online in order to pay your bill electronically. That makes sense, but giving your banking or credit card information to a site you found through a pop-up ad or an unsolicited email? That’s a sure way to lose your money. Don’t. Do. It. Period.

Don’t pay to play. If a site requires you to pay a fee or charge of some sort in order to claim the free service, how is that free? Some legitimate deals offer “free when you pay shipping and handling” but even with those you need to check all of the details and amounts up front to make sure that it’s actually worth what they’re charging for your “free” item. Also, be alert to offers of something free that require you to purchase something else or to sign up for a monthly service or other such ongoing commitment. Some of these (like our Perfect Match Coupon offer) are worthwhile deals, just make sure you understand the fine print, including any cancellation details, before you sign up.

Also, be aware that some scam operations put up new sites and take old ones down every day. You sign up for a free trial, and when you go to cancel before your credit card is charged you find that the site doesn’t exist and the phone number you have for cancellation doesn’t work either. Once again, stick to well known brands and sites.

Follow your instincts. The old cliche “if it seems to good to be true then it probably is” holds true more than ever on the Web. If your gut or common sense is ringing warning bells, don’t let your desire for something free drown them out.

You’ve got mail! Be especially suspicious of unsolicited offers you receive by email. Sometimes when you follow a link nothing seems to happen. This is often just a way for scammers to collect valid email addresses to sell or to use with other scams. Also, never send your personal financial information via email. Legitimate sites use secure methods for exchanging private information.

Do your homework. Be sure to read all of the terms and conditions for an offer before you sign up, and check around with other reliable sources for information. Simple searches on the Web about your offer will often reveal current scams. Check with others online that you trust, and see what deals they recommend. Scammers, as well as legitimate online businesses, will usually have a reputation if you take time to seek it out.

Quality businesses often use free goods or services to help market their products. Just make sure you know who you’re dealing with and understand all of the terms and conditions upfront. More than anything else, pay attention if there’s ever a little voice inside your head screaming “RUN! YOU FOOL!”

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