If you’ve ever gotten a text message on your cell phone telling you that you’ve won a free prize, you’re not alone. During the past year, the FTC has gotten tens of thousands of complaints about unsolicited text messages.
Many of the messages claim that you’ve won a free prize, and feature a link to a website. If you click on the link, you reach a site that supposedly offers the free merchandise. But to get the “free” prize, you have to reveal a lot of personal information — and maybe some money, too. Some of the sites require you to sign up for dietary supplements, skin care products, book of the month clubs, credit cards, government grants, or identity theft protection — most of which require you to pay a shipping fee and cancel a membership within a certain time to avoid being charged monthly.
That you have to share personal information and pay isn’t disclosed until you’ve been drawn into the scam.
Bottomline: “Free” merchandise websites rarely live up to their promises, if ever. Need proof? The FTC recently brought eight cases against 29 defendants who sent illegal spam texts and falsely claimed that prizes or gifts were free.
Mostly, the consumers who dealt with the scam artists involved in the FTC cases never got the free gift they were promised. Many people abandoned the websites once they realized they hadn’t won anything and that the offer for “free” merchandise required them to pay.
But the scam still worked because most people clicked into the website, entering personal information or completing some offers — and generating income for the free merchandise website operators before they quit. The website operators sold the consumers’ information to other marketers and earned commissions from those running the offers advertised on the sites.
When you see a spam text offering a gift, a gift card, or a ‘free’ service, do yourself a favor:
Delete any text that asks you to confirm or provide personal information: Legitimate companies don’t ask for information like your account numbers or passwords by email or text.
Don’t reply, and don’t click on links in the message: Links can install malware on your computer and take you to spoof sites that look real but whose purpose is to steal your information
by Colleen Tressler
Consumer Education Specialist, FTC