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From Financial Integrity

Freebies Online

When you hear "free stuff," how can you know whether the offer is legitimate, or cyber-safe? For many of us, the default position is to ignore it, assuming either that businesses wouldn't offer free stuff, or that there's a catch. However, in this marketing-saturated world organizations realize that offering free samples or information to potential customers can help to increase their business in the long run. Others have simply identified a rich vein of information to be mined and misused, or twisty tricks to lure consumers into paying for shoddy or non-existant goods.

A lot of advertisers and manufacturers will give away free samples such as merchandise and portions of their products to entice you to explore their web-sites, and hook you into loyalty to buy from them in the future. Although very popular in the United States, you can find just as many internet websites that offer free stuff in the UK and other countries.

Offers of free stuff range anywhere from watches, clothing, electronics, household commodities, computers, stereo systems and additional goods that we tend to use in many of our daily lives. Brand-name consumable products are frequently offered, and can be a convenient way of trying out a new product. But much of it is low-quality junk that will amount to more clutter in your life. E-books, newsletters, and downloadable programs and tools are popular as well, especially with blogs and sites that mostly sell information.

With common sense and a bit of research, you can find reputable sources of free or low-cost goods and services. Here are some specific areas of caution.


One quite popular way to implement this is by having visitors fill out surveys. These businesses find out what people think of their products and their views about them all. Most of these survey sites feature free awards and other merchandise and some individuals offer revenue for filling out their online surveys. Be VERY wary of surveys that ask you any information about yourself -- this personal information can be linked to your internet address and used for questionable purposes. Be wary of providing your telephone number or birth date unless there is a clear need for it, as well. Surveys are a prime way for "crammers" to obtain information to pack unwanted "services" onto your phone bill, which can be very hard to get rid of. Paid surveys rarely pay enough to be worth the time, but if you decide to try survey-taking as a routine way of getting merchandise or revenue, research and sign up for a an account through a reputable broker.


There are legitimate sweepstakes and games, especially when the sponsor is a major corporation offering its own products along with a grand prize of some kind. However, smaller organizations may be offering sweepstakes as either a way to get your information to sell for marketing purposes, or to induce you to view a high-pressure sales pitch. Most "win a new car" sweepstakes are prime examples of this category. Be wary of sweepstakes offering generic prizes such as cutlery, tennis bracelets, or vacations to specific locales.

Free software

Free software offered by reputable sites can be a wonderful bargain. Some is open-source software that performs functions similar to big-ticket brands, created and distributed by designers who believe that code should be freely shared. Companies will often give away free downloads of a single element of a suite of programs, knowing that many users will want to purchase the full product after trying the free one. Some also offer outdated versions for free or very reduced price for the same reason.

However, free software is also one of the prime targets for deceptive and actively harmful practices. Be very careful of using any free download site that requires you to fill out a survey before gaining access to the content. Font and clipart sites are prime culprits, very frequently little more than sites designed to get your information, or get you to sit still while adware and spyware are transferred to your system. There are many good sites, but be sure your virus and spyware software is up to date if you plan to download from a site you're not familiar with. The best way to find reputable download sites is to start with well-regarded resource sites in that field. Also be wary of hidden subscription schemes, where accepting the "free" software obligates you to a monthly subscription that charges you for open-source software freely available on the Web. If you have to enter a credit card number to ship your free software, be cautious.

You will have to be careful of those sites which are offering free stuff to simply obtain your information. They then will sell your information to people you may not want to hear from, or who may target you not just for sales, but for scams. Be sure that whatever website you choose to do business with is legitimate and that they are not just fraudulent to get you to visit to their website and mine data about you.


Practice good Internet hygeine. To keep your private info private and your inbox spam-free, consider using a disposable free email address for responding to offers, filling out surveys, etc. If you have a PayPal account, be cautious about using your PayPal email to sign up on sites you're unfamiliar with. Read the Terms of Use and Terms of Service carefully before signing up: federal law requires sites to disclose conditions such as subscriptions, but they are often cleverly hidden in the TOU/TOS. Don't fill out an information field just because it's asked for, if there doesn't seem to be any need for the information. Ask yourself, "What is the purpose here?"

Do your homework. Before signing up for a membership to get free stuff, use your search engine to search " + complaints" or " + reviews" to see what experiences others have. For sofware, check sites like PC Magazine for reviews. There are sites that review and rate survey sites, also.

No phishing. Never click directly on a link in an unsolicited email, or copy and paste the address: if you're interested in the offer, type the URL directly into the address bar. If it purports to come from a familiar company, go to the company's site directly, then search for the offer. Check for additional tips on phishing safety.

Know before you go. Understand the terms related to website data protection. "Certified" websites just means that the data you enter is encrypted and is unlikely to be mined by a third party while being transmitted -- it does not mean that the website is a reputable business. "Secured" - the URL starts with "https:" rather than "http:" has a similar meaning.