We all love free stuff -- and the Internet is bursting with giveaways and coupons that let you nab cool things without spending a penny. ShopSmart, the shopping magazine published by Consumer Reports, found the best websites for freebies and offered tips to avoid letdowns and protect your private information.
• Act fast. The best stuff runs out quickly -- so act on freebie offers before the supply is exhausted. In ShopSmart's hunt, pet goodies went especially quickly.
• Know when to quit. Some giveaways just aren't worth jumping through hoops; some sites will try to collect your info with no payoff. Save yourself time and trouble by reading comments on referring sites where others might have already complained about the problems.
• Share deals with others or yourself. Some freebie offers come with a friend component. Some offers even allow you to enter your own mailing address for the giftee, and you could score two samples for yourself.
But manufacturers and retailers aren't giving their stuff away just to be nice -- they usually want something in return. Here are some smart ways to minimize the aftershock of sharing your contact information:
• Create a new email address. Use it for freebies because all offers require one. When you request freebies on Facebook, you can enter an email different from the one linked to the account.
• Fudge your personal info. Many offers request names and birth dates. Make up something so that your identity remains private.
• Opt out of mailings. Usually it's presented as an option. Only two companies forced the ShopSmart team to agree to mailings before freebies could be ordered.
Where to get free stuff
Facebook. Many companies offer exclusive giveaways to folks who "like" their brand on Facebook. Search for your favorite companies, retailers and products, and if you find something good, you can share the offer instantly with your Facebook friends. You can always "unlike" the page later.
Manufacturer websites. Signing up on manufacturer websites can net you multiple freebies in one package. Procter & Gamble's site, at pgeveryday.com, offers the best selection ShopSmart has seen. Your free registration entitles you to one freebie order (several items) per household, per quarter.
Retailers. Try online retailers, such as Target, which has a sample section at samples.target.com. Some items are free to all, others -- such as a beauty bag with samples from Neutrogena, Nexxus and Nivea -- require a code from an in-store receipt. Skip Walmart's Free Samples & Savings section, which had few freebie offers that didn't work. For in-store items, go to Nordstrom Sample Saturday, and you can pick up the week's featured item. Starbucks offers free downloads of music, samples of books, TV shows and apps.
Customer rewards programs. Sign up for frequent-moviegoer programs, such as AMC Stubs Rewards and Regal Cinemas Crown Club, to get tickets, concession items and waived booking fees. Your bank might hook you up with events and tickets: Citibank or debit MasterCard cardholders are auto-enrolled in the Citi Private Pass program; Bank of America cardholders can visit museums gratis (museums.bankofamerica.com) once a month.yourbiz
Consumer Reports: www.consumerreports.org