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'Free' offers on the internet

What is a ‘free’ offer on the internet and why can it be a scam?

‘Free’ offers displayed on the internet often turn out to be scams. They might offer you free access to an otherwise restricted site, free shares, free downloads, free trials of certain products or even a free holiday. They can appear as annoying pop-ups while you are on the net or as ads at the tops or margins of websites. Sometimes entire websites could be set up to advertise a ‘free’ offer.

Usually, the offers either require you to provide credit card, bank account or other personal details, or they require you to pay an upfront fee to claim your ‘free’ prize or product.

Of course, there are many sites on the internet that legitimately offer free products or services and that are not scams. The warning signs below can help you decide if an offer is likely to be a scam or not.

Warning signs

  • You follow an internet ad or pop-up window that is advertising a free product or service.
  • When you try to find out more about a free offer, you are directed to a different website with more advertising.
  • The website offering the ‘free’ product does not appear to load up correctly or not all its links work.
  • The website offering the ‘free’ product may require you to register your credit card or bank account details.
  • To claim the free product or service, you are asked to pay some sort of fee or charge.
  • There might not be any legal information (copyright statements and terms of use, privacy policies etc) contained on the page.

Protect yourself from ‘free’ offers on the internet.

  • If it looks too good to be true—it probably is.
  • Use your common sense: the offer may be a scam.
  • NEVER send money, or give credit card or online account details to anyone you do not know and trust.
  • Never enter your personal, credit card or online account information on a website that you are not certain is genuine.
  • Never send your personal, credit card or online account details through an email.
  • Read all the terms and conditions of any offer very carefully: claims of free or very cheap offers often have hidden costs.

As well as following these specific tips, find out how to protect yourself from all sorts of other scams.

Do your homework

Be sceptical of free offers and ask yourself: what’s the catch? Remember that you don’t get something for nothing. It’s better never to click on internet ads which promise you something that looks too good to be true.

It can be difficult to determine if a free offer is worthwhile or not. A good, but not foolproof, method is to ask other internet users you trust for information and to search for information about the product on trustworthy internet sites (sites that you have heard of before and are not connected with the free offer).

If a free offer does look reasonable (for example, the offer is being made by a well known company) be sure that you know what the offer is actually for, if there are any costs involved and what conditions are attached. For example, do you have to sign up for a subscription service where only the first order is free?

If the free offer involves an up-front payment or has other strings attached (e.g. to claim a ‘free holiday’), seek independent advice from an accountant or a solicitor before doing anything or contact your local office of fair trading for assistance. If you are asked to register your credit card or bank account details, for example, to gain entry to a ‘free’ website, ask yourself why this should be necessary if the offer was really free. If you do enter these details, there is a very real chance that these details will be used to steal money from you or to run up debts in your name. The golden rule is that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.


If you come across an advertisement on the internet that offers something for free, be very careful. If the offer looks to good to be true, or asks you to provide credit card or banking details, do NOT respond. Do not make contact with anyone listed in the ad, do not call the telephone number listed and do not send any money, credit card details or other personal details to the scammers. Responding only indicates you're interested and you could end up with lots more scam offers in the future.

If you believe the website and offer may be genuine, make sure you find out all the terms and conditions involved. Make sure you have reliable internet security software installed and keep it up-to-date. Be very suspicious of an offer that requires you to give over your credit card, bank account or personal details as these are nearly always scams.

Report them

If you have seen a free offer on the internet that you think may be a scam, you can report a scam through the SCAMwatch website. You should also spread the word to your friends and family to protect them.


What to do if you've been scammed; Scams & the law; Report a scam.

Similar scams:

Online auctions can be rigged by scammers or used to target you for a scam outside of the auction site. You could end up with a dud product or nothing at all for your money.

Scams that send you a fake renewal notice for your actual domain name, or a misleading invoice for a domain name that is very similar to your own.

Spam emails, SMS or MMS usually offer free goods or ‘prizes’, very cheap products or promises of wealth. Responding to spam messages can result problems for you computer and your bank account.

Modem-jacking scams secretly change the phone number dial-up modems use to access the internet to an overseas or premium rate phone number. You could pay hundreds of dollars extra.

Spyware is a type of software that spies on what you do on your computer. Key-loggers record what keys you press on your keyboard. Scammers can use them to steal your online banking passwords or other personal information.

Unexpected prizes that need you to send money to claim—you may never receive the prize or it may not be what you expected.

Misleading offers for ‘free’ or cheap ring tones that end up being a subscription or premium rate service.

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