Why do so many complimentary offers come with a price tag? Here's how not to get swindled by samples.

By Kate Ashford

You've heard it before: The best things in life are free. There's nothing like walking into a store and being handed a trial size of a new product. Do a quick Google search for "freebies" and you'll be buried in an avalanche of web-sites offering product samples and coupons. But it turns out that "free" is a relative term and a common online scam—unless you don't mind completing four surveys and signing up for six trial offers to get your prize. And did we mention that your email address is usually sold to every spammer with a computer? Thanks for playing. (Study up on money lessons from real families.)

But there are plenty of ways to cash in on complimentary offers without signing your life away or ending up on an annoying junk email list. Our smart strategies for how to avoid free sample and freebie scams will help you steer clear of the hidden costs.

Legit Ways to Get Free Stuff Online: Dos and Don’ts

DON'T: Waste your time filling out copious forms.

We've all been there—you click on a link for a sample of body wash and suddenly you're revealing your firstborn's astrological sign and joining a movie club to qualify for the "free" offer. (Get three movies for just $1.99 each! Then pay $19.95 for five more, plus shipping and handling!) The best freebie deals require your name and address, period. The worst freebie scams make you sign up with rewards partners who want a commitment to a trial offer that will cost you money if you're not paying attention. Yes, it's usually possible to cancel those services within 30 days and pay nothing so it’s not exactly a common online scam. Plus they do disclose this in the fine print... But you're more likely to forget you ever signed up before you see the charge on your credit card bill and end up shelling out at least the first month's fee. If you have the patience to track all those offers and cancel them, then the world is your oyster. But if you have better things to do (and I'm sure you do), there are smarter ways to snag complimentary deals.

DO: Go to the manufacturer's website directly.

What's the best place to find legitimate free samples of Procter & Gamble products? (Hint: It's not freefreefree123.net.) P&G actually has a consumer products site, pgeveryday.com, where you can register for samples and discounts as they become available. Curious about one of the easiest ways to figure out how to avoid free sample and freebie scams? This is it: Be extra-cautious about freebies offered by sites that aren't directly connected to the manufacturer. "If a link is not the actual webpage of the product, I bypass it," says Debbie, 51, a mom of three in Massachusetts. "But once on a mailing list, you'll get lots of coupons and trial products," she says. Love John Frieda hair products? Go to johnfrieda.com and sign up to receive updates. While you can't usually request a sample of your favorite product, you might get to try something you end up liking even better.

DON'T: Give out your digits.

Never ever provide your credit card information or Social Security number (common online scam alert!). "It definitely puts you at risk of getting your identity stolen," says Wendi Caetta, owner of FreebieBlogger. If it's free, it shouldn't require payment, which means the site doesn't need your financial details. Note: There are legitimate sites that may offer something free provided you sign up for trial offers from sponsor companies. For instance, you may be able to score a sample of a cereal bar, but only if you sign up for a credit monitoring service and a weight-loss product trial—and those offers can require a credit card. But this goes back to our first rule of free sample scams: If you have to cancel something within 30 days to prevent spending money, it's generally not worth your time.

DO: Be realistic.

If a free sample looks too good to be true, it probably is. A trial-size shampoo? Plausible. A week's vacation in Orlando? Not so much. Steer clear of pages with obvious typos in the text, grammatical errors and limited info. Does the offer list a phone number? Call it. "Sites will trick you by listing random numbers from the phone book," Caetta says. "Sometimes the number is no longer in service, or it may be a residential number and the person on the other end of the line has no idea what you're talking about. That happens more than you think." (Discover how to steer clear of holiday scams and fraud, too.)

DON'T: Enter your everyday email address.

Even if you sign up only for legitimate offers, you're still releasing your email address into the wild. Keep your freebie correspondence separate by establishing a special address that you use only for those offers, such as YourNameJunkMail@gmail.com. Hint: If you create a Gmail address, you can forward messages (for free) to your main email account, then filter those messages into a folder. That way you can always delete the second account if it starts getting too much spam from free sample scams. Your inbox will thank you. (Psst...here’s more about how to declutter your inbox.)

DON'T: Forget about letter writing.

We know: If it doesn't have an "e" in front of it, you haven't done it in years. But a well-written, snail-mail letter to a manufacturer's consumer affairs department stating you love their products and are interested in samples and coupons can make your request stand out. "Go to the store with a little spiral notebook," says Dan Barnes, author of Absolutely Free!, a guide to requesting and receiving products and coupons. "Look at the packaging of items you like and write down the name and address of the company." One stamp could reap rewards for years.

Tips For Avoiding Common Online Scams

Before giving your information away or unknowingly enrolling in a freebie scam, keep these three key factors in mind.

  • Scrutinize the URL before clicking. "Sometimes just visiting a website—even without clicking on anything—can expose you to malicious programs and scripts," says Renee Chronister, owner of Parameter Security, a firm that helps companies test their network safety. A virus could crash your system.
  • A seemingly harmless site may have entry points for danger. "Facebook has a lot of those freebie ads on the right-hand side," Chronister says. "Some of those are ploys that have codes embedded in them. Don't click." A sketchy site could steal your personal info.
  • Invest in security software that alerts you when a site isn't safe or if something's trying to access your hard drive. It's not foolproof, but it's better than leaving the door open. A good free option: Avast. Also consider an anti-spyware program like Spybot Search & Destroy.

Free Sample Scam Safety For the Family

Your kids will click on anything, and the word "free" is awfully tempting. To protect your computer from viruses and common online scams, tell kids not to open emails from people they don't know, and supervise them when they're surfing. "It's like keeping an eye on your children when they're playing outside," Chronister says. In addition to putting the computer in a common area, teach your kids not to click on ads or strange websites. And since most blocking applications are geared toward porn and profanity, your best defense is good security software.

No Freebie Scams Here! Legit Freebie Sites

There are plenty of sample sites that offer free stuff with no strings attached. Our favorites:

  • instoresnow.walmart.com
  • pgeverydaysolutions.com
  • johnfrieda.com
  • dove.us
  • playtexproductsinc.com
  • Aveeno.com

One Woman Explains Her Legit Ways to Get Free Stuff Online—and How She’s Saved Thousands

When Michelle Bank was a stay-at-home mom, she became obsessed with coupons and freebies. "If I sent you a picture of my closet, you'd probably think I'm crazy," says the 37-year-old mother of two daughters. Over the years she's gotten free shampoo, soap, toothpaste, dental floss, deodorant, shaving cream—the list goes on and on. Today the Illinois special ed teacher estimates that she saves $1,100 a month by combining coupons and free offers. "People don't believe me when I tell them I went from spending $1,300 a month to $200 a month," she says. "It's amazing."

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