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The Internet is full of freebies, but many come with a high price: stolen personal information, viruses, junk software, plus your time and frustration when you don’t get what was advertised.
In fact, just looking for something free online – even if you don’t download or sign up for anything – puts you and your computer at risk.
Antivirus software company McAfee reported recently [PDF] that just by adding the word “free” to a search query for ringtones – as in “free Rihanna ringtone” – you’re 300 percent more likely to land on a malicious site. McAfee also notes the word “MP3” can make results twice as risky, and identifies other search terms that carry additional risk – like “screen saver” or some entertainer’s names. This is because advertisers – including unscrupulous ones – know we want something for nothing, and they play off that desire. Is there any other word that can rope in more people than “free”?
Of course, there are plenty of honest-to-Google free things available online. The trick is learning how to tell what’s a rip-off and what isn’t. McAfee offers a few unhelpful suggestions, like “stick to legitimate, paid sites” and “use our software!” But those are solutions that cost money, and while it’s true that you get what you pay for, you don’t have to completely write off free stuff. Here are some tips for figuring out what’s really free – and protecting yourself from what might be carrying a high price:
- Search “scam” after searching “free.” On the web, the word “free” is owned by cunning advertisers. But the word “scam” belongs to angry consumers. See what alleged freebies are frustrating your fellow web surfer before trying them yourself, and then decide whether it’s worth the risk or effort.
- Don’t settle for the top results of your search. Advertisers work hard to get their tricky deals to the very top of search results, hoping you’ll assume the stuff on top is the cream of the crop. This will probably be an even bigger deal now that Google posts search results in real-time, while you’re typing. If you decide to scope out whatever pops up first, be extra careful.
- Get antivirus software – or a Mac. PC users are more prone to the risks associated with bargain hunting than Mac users, simply because there’s more malware targeted at PCs. But as Macs become ever more popular, this is a less-sure bet. It’s a good idea to get antivirus software regardless. If you’re serious about freebies, one solution for PCs is AVG Free, and one for Mac is iAntiVirus. You can check out more free recommendations for PC users in our story, Antivirus Software is a Waste of Money.
- Look at what they want. If you’re trying to get something digital for free, there’s no reason why the site should need your address, phone number, credit card info, or anything like that. At most, they should need your e-mail address — and it’s a good idea to keep a separate e-mail account for freebies, because you can count on them selling your address. They might also legitimately want demographic information, because that’s valuable research that might pay for whatever they’re offering. But if the offer is for something you can’t download, like a T-shirt or a DVD, then it can be harder to identify a potential scam. In those cases, they have a legitimate reason to ask for your address — they want to mail you something.There are two things that might tip you off, though: the availability and the shipping cost. If you have to pay reasonable shipping costs or the offer is only good until a certain date, it’s more likely to be legit, because it’s limiting the site’s expenses.
Ultimately, the best advice to avoid viruses, malware, and the like is to use common sense. Think like the advertiser: How are they paying for the freebie, and what are they getting out it? If you can’t answer those questions, then it’s probably best to steer clear of the deal. But here are some suggestions for freebies you can trust: 12 Things People Buy They Could Get Free.