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The High Cost of 'Free'

Here's why scammers love ‘zero cost’ promises

freebie scam trap

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When you see an offer that includes the word 'free,' proceed with caution.

The best things in life are free? Not always.  While free samples, bonus gifts and trial offers are proven marketing techniques used by countless legitimate companies, “free” is also a common lure in scams that can cost you plenty. Your task: separating the fair offers from the frauds. Here’s what to look for when offered things at no cost.

Health and medical

Freebie health scams occur year-round, but Medicare’s open enrollment period, which runs Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, offers crooks special opportunities for Medicare-related schemes to steal your identity. For example, it’s flu-vaccine season, when free health services and screenings pop up. Some are legitimate. But others are set up by scammers who rent booth space or storefronts to swipe Medicare and health insurance numbers. Stick with programs you can verify or that are in trusted pharmacies, medical offices or government buildings.

Have you seen advertisements for supplies and equipment that are “no cost to you” or “covered by Medicare”? Some products are unsafe. Others have little value. For example, the back braces frequently promised for free in robocalls and postcards closely resemble $20 models available at retail stores. Yet scammers bill Medicare or your health insurer hundreds or thousands of dollars and pocket the money. And without a doctor’s prescription, the equipment that was supposed to be covered by Medicare probably isn’t, leaving you with the bill.

Other schemes angle for a credit card number to allegedly cover shipping charges. Your account is then hit with overcharges or fees, or even sold to other scammers. Also beware of soundalike names, like the National Diabetes Association, instead of the legitimate American Diabetes Association. And watch out for any requests for personal data. If the stuff were really free, such information wouldn’t be needed. Remember: Medicare doesn’t call or visit to update your information.  

Travel and leisure

Have you been offered free airline tickets and hotel stays by emails and through social media? Those enticements can come from crooks who steal the logos of well-known companies, promote a giveaway and provide malware-laden links to infect your computer. Online offers for free merchandise or meals are also very likely to be scams. Always check the company’s website for legitimate promotions.

Then there are the offers by mail or phone to lure people to high-pressure sales presentations for time-shares or vacation clubs. While they can be legal, they often don’t deliver on promises of huge discounts or luxury accommodations. And memberships can cost $10,000, followed by hard-to-cancel annual fees.

Sometimes free cruises or vacations offered in unsolicited calls and postcards require your credit card for a reservation. Expect to be billed immediately for port fees or security deposits. And there is likely to be a policy of no refunds in the small print. That all-inclusive package may produce lousy accommodations and require big fees for meals, lodging or the ship’s fuel.

Free trials

Whether the promise is wrinkle-free skin or earning easy money working from home, the cancellation window with some free-trial offers starts when you place your order, not when you receive it. And scam vendors may purposely delay the initial shipment so you can’t cancel in time. The offers may have small-print disclosures or prechecked boxes through which you agree to receive other products, often at outrageous costs and without free trials.

Be wary of product endorsements that are attributed to customers; they can be as fake as some online news reports or sponsored content. Finally, be wary of words like “miracle,” “guaranteed” and “risk free.” They’re often code for “rip-off.”

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