Freebies are Fun, But When is the Price Too High?

Freebies are products companies give to consumers at no price. Long before the establishment of the Internet, many companies handed out freebies in stores, gave mail-in offers and used other ways to distribute their products to get the proverbial word out to a wider audience. Fast-forward a few decades and people still typically love freebies, but in today's digital age, not all offers are legitimate.

Legitimate Giveaways

Giveaways are a great marketing tool for businesses. Usually, these come in the form of small samples, a trial membership or other coupon offer. Occasionally, companies may offer an elaborate free offer, but there are typically strings attached. Most giveaways are normally token gestures.

After the web was established, free offers became more available to consumers due to companies' ability to get higher visibility. Today, consumers can get many products online, free of charge, by providing some personal information that is valuable to marketers. Others may want people to take a survey to highlight their personal preferences. But not all offers are as good as they seem.

Arrow pointing to free
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Common Freebie Scams

Unfortunately, while there are many legitimate offers for giveaways, there are many scams out there too. Exploiters use the lure of free products or services to solicit information or convince a consumer to visit a rogue website.

Common freebie scams are related to health, diet and beauty. Scammers ask consumers to sign up for free trials and/or samples. The fraudsters ask the consumer to pay for postage and handling via a credit card. Next thing the consumer knows other charges start showing up on their future bills because they enrolled in a subscription. In this case, free is not exactly free.

Freebie scams are more common on the Internet, however, telephone scams are still around too. In 2013 a scam was circulating that was targeting senior citizens offering free medical alert devices.

“The scammers pose as representatives for medical device companies and ask for money and personal information, including social security numbers or credit card information, in exchange for "free" medical alert equipment, the state Division of Consumer Protection warned in an alert issued Monday,” reported in 2013. 3

The holidays are another “peak” time for scams. It is common for people to receive dozens of free gift card offers and fake coupons for major merchants circulating on Facebook. There are also the perennial scams such as free airline tickets, iPhones, iPads or travel vouchers. (In 2014, I literally got dozens of free gift card offers in my email every week for a good month - equating to thousands of dollars of "free" card offers).

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How Do You Know When to ‘Flee from Free’?   

Fraudsters can be pretty convincing and make their scams sound like the real deal. There are a few red flags you can look for:

  • Be leery of any offer that comes unsolicited. In this day and age, most often consumers have to request free items; the marketers generally don't often call or email consumers at random.
  • You'll probably want to walk away from the offer if the company/individual asks for too much personal information. Many giveaway offers simply want email and name information, possibly gender and age. If the item has to be mailed they'll need a mailing address. Beyond that information, consider it a warning sign.
  • If the offer asks for any credit card or social security information, run the other way. While some freebies are really trial offers and not "free", they may ask for a credit card payment, so before committing, investigate to see if you really want the trial. No company, however, should ever need your Social Security number.
  • Walk away from an offer if the company does not offer any contact information on its website. If there is contact information, call the phone number to verify. According to  Family Circle, scammers will sometimes put a random phone number on a website to make it look legitimate. 4 Be careful though, in recent years scammers set up fake operations to appear legitimate. If they call you, keep in mind, phone numbers can also be easily spoofed and do not accurately show up on caller ID.
Caller ID
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  • Check to see if there is a physical address or a P.O. Box. The latter is a warning sign.
  • Get away from the offer as fast as you can if anyone asks you to wire money. Scammers sometimes convince consumers they can get a free product, but need to pay for the shipping.
  • Check to see if the offer comes from a website that is not a well-known business. For instance, if you are trying to get free diapers, these should be offered by the manufacturer, not a middle-man.
  • Another red flag is if there are typos or other grammatical errors in the offer. Marketers are very careful on promoting a business in the best light and, in most cases, the copy will be flawless.
  • Be cautious of odd-looking and/or lookalike URLs and don't click on random links that arrive in email. Visiting a rogue website could download malware on your computer.
  • Avoid logging into these sites via Facebook or other sites.
  • Beware of websites that ask for emails of family and friends. Even if the freebie offer is legitimate, the real moneymaker will be in the selling of any data collected and subjecting everyone to spam. 6
  • Do a WhoIs search to see if it’s new or long-established. Is there real contact information? The Better Business Bureau warns if it’s a new site or masked by a proxy service, “consider it a big warning sign of a scam.” 1

While freebies are fun to receive, the cost is too high if it turns out to be a scam that is a rip-off. You could also become a victim of financial or identity theft. Chances are almost a given you’ll get lots of spam. Scammers often use highly enticing offers to trick people, but always keep in mind, if it sounds too good to be true, chances are it probably is not a legitimate offer.