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Freebies -- Good Deal or a Waste of Time?

By Charles Hopkins Published 04/23/2006 | Computer
There are a great number of "free" things available on the Internet. Some of the offers are real and some aren't. There are legitimate reasons for free offers. Sellers give away free samples, for instance. That's why there are wine-tasting rooms, test-drives for cars and the opportunity to try on shoes before you buy them! Sellers want you to buy their products and are willing to let you try them out to some extent to convince you to buy. And so there are promotions of various types out there, which can be a good deal for the participants. But tread carefully! There ARE nuggets to be found, but all that glitters is not necessarily gold!

For example, a search on "free antivirus" at www.dogpile.com, yields 100 hits. They run the usual spectrum of most free offers, from genuine giveaways to outright "sucker traps" that just want your address so they can drown you in spam! They can be categorized as 1.Genuine, 2.Free but donation requested, 3.Time Based, 4.Free but paid for by others, 5.Free Sample, 6.Marketing key word tricks and 7.Bait and Switch address thieves. Let's look at each of these categories.

1. Genuine. For anti-virus software there are some programs out there that are really free, just for the downloading. Some perform very well against the well-known annual-fee offerings, even beating them in various ways.

They give good advice, "...when picking out your antivirus solution...first of all you want to make sure you get an antivirus program from a trusted source. Doing a little research on the internet (websites like this) will help you identify who the trusted providers of antivirus software are. Always find multiple sources of information, that way you are more than likely to find a software product you can get help with and that won't be filled with spyware and adware."

2. Free but donation requested. These are free, but they ask you to make voluntary donations. Also in this category are those that offer a limited capacity version, such as do Note Tab (text manager) and Zone Alarm (firewalls) for free, then try to get you to upgrade to the paid version. These are legitimate marketing ploys, and maybe the free version will be all you really need.

3. Time Based. Free to try for 30 days, 30.00 if you decide to keep it! Not unreasonable. Like a test drive. Many software products use this approach. Some will just not work after the trial period; others will periodically degrade their capacities, encouraging you to buy. For example, www.goodsol.com has a solitaire program that starts degrading after 30 days. After 60 days or so they shut down the take-back-the-last-move feature! Maybe by that time you are addicted to the game and go ahead and buy the full-capacity version. Or maybe you just play VERY carefully!

4. Free but paid for by others. Paid by advertising (like yahoo mail and hotmail) is legit. Like commercials on free TV. Somebody's got to pay the cost of providing the service! Spyware and adware are not O.K. Their purpose is to track your Internet movements for marketing survey purposes or deliver pop-up ads to you at random unexpected times. If you download any program of which you are at all suspicious, run your anti-spyware program(s) after using them.

Spyware and adware must "call home" to report and get new ads, so you should severely restrict which of your programs you allow to access the Internet.

5. Free Sample. Fair enough if it is legit, but remember the fisherman offers the fish free worms! In anti-virus and anti-spyware programs, many vendors offer a free online checkout of your system to see if it has viruses or spyware on it. Most are honest. Some will "plant" a few of what they are supposed to protect you against, and then "find" them, to great fanfare, just to prove that THEY are finding things that your current program can't!

6. Marketing key word tricks. The word "Free" sells! Marketers know this and put the word "Free" in their headings and where search engines will look. So when you search on "free anti-virus download" a marketer's "Download a free scan" offer will match on two words, free and download. The majority of hits on your search will probably be from this type of word trick site.

7. Bait and Switch address thieves. The Internet is cracking down on spam. Pushy salesmen are getting desperate for email addresses to which they can "legitimately" mail offers. To get addresses they offer all sorts of outrageous (and some almost reasonable) free offers. "Congratulations you have just won a Sony laptop computer!", followed by a request for your home and email address so they can send it to you (sounds reasonable enough, to get your Sony laptop). This is followed by requests to answer a "survey", then questions about your interests, occupation, etc. etc. What is really happening is that they are getting a profile of you to help them sell your address to their customers! Finally, it turns out that to "finish qualifying" for your gift, you have to buy something, then something else, etc. The free laptop (the bait) has been switched to being required to buy junk you don't need that ends up costing you more than it would to go out and buy the laptop!

And the next day there are 40 or 50 new emails in your inbox offering things that they claim that YOU asked about!

In summary, with a little research you can find worthwhile free items on the Internet. Using common sense you can avoid most of the problems. Ask yourself, what's in this for the seller? How can he give it to me for free? And remember, that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably IS too good to be true. Even a fish wouldn't get caught if he looked, and avoided worms that had a line going from them up to the surface!

Otherwise, use caution and enjoy the many GOOD freebies that are out there!
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