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Archive for Monday, October 5, 1998

ABSOLUTELY FREE*

October 5, 1998

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*Some Internet-capable computer equipment required

When I first began using the Internet about 10 years ago, one of the coolest things about it was that there was so much free software and information out there. In those days before the World Wide Web was invented, you could find hundreds of FTP (File Transfer Protocol) servers, and help yourself to whatever was stored there. And it was free!

Of course, the amount of stuff I marveled at 10 years ago is only a very tiny fraction of what is available today in the era of the Web. And although there is certainly plenty of electronic commerce taking place, you might be amazed at the sheer numbers and variety of freebies on the 'Net.

There are, for example, at least seven sites that are simply directories of so-called ``freebie'' sites, cataloging hundreds of Web sites that offer all kinds of free things.

Free software abounds on the Web, of course -- we've mentioned many freeware, shareware and ``demo-ware'' sites in this column before. In fact, there have always been huge amounts of free computer-related things available on the 'Net -- things such as graphics files, free graphics and scripts for Web site developers, free tutorials and documentation, free fonts and sound files, and all of that.

But there are also places to get free catalogs, coupons for all kinds of items, newsletters, magazines, free educational materials for teachers and kids, free reference materials and other kinds of free online information. And there are hundreds of places to get free samples of all kinds of consumer products -- candy, sweeteners, cooking spices, cookbooks, all kinds of health and beauty products, automotive care products, free supplies and materials for crafts of various types and more.

There are dozens of contests going on all the time on the 'Net, and some of the prizes are pretty good -- I'm keeping my fingers crossed for an Apple PowerBook laptop computer and some music recording gear at the moment.

Of course, the naysayers among my readers are surely saying ``Nay!'' right now, as naysayers are known to do, and for good reason -- there is almost always a catch. One of the common acronyms you see on the 'Net from time to time is ``TNSTAAFL,'' which means ``There's No Such Thing As A Free Lunch,'' and unfortunately, this is true of Internet freebies as well, most of the time. If you enter an online giveaway contest, for example, don't be surprised if your e-mail box (or your snail-mail box, for that matter) should fill up with unwanted advertising: spam or junk mail.

Very few people are out there on the 'Net just giving away free things without there being something lucrative in it for them. In order to enter a contest, for example, you may have to provide all kinds of personal information that can then be made part of a mailing list that is sold to spammers, or direct-mail marketers, or anyone at all. Some sites request only what is necessary to inform you about whether you've won, but others request much more than that. In other words, the freebie, whatever it is, is the bait that gets you to visit the site and give out your name and address, maybe more.

Another caveat is that while the product or sample is free, you may have to pay a ``shipping and handling'' fee, usually a dollar or two, to get them to send it to you. And if a freebie site requests your credit card information, even though you haven't bought anything, don't do it. You might be setting yourself up for credit-card fraud.

Here's a sampling of places to find freebie information on the Web: Cool Freebie Links, http://www.coolfreebielinks.com/cfl/freebies.htm; The Free-Loaders, http://www.av.qnet.com/~sudz; The Top Ten Freebie Links, http://www.go-symmetry.com/free-links.htm; TUFA, The Ultimate Free Archive, http://www.tufa.com; and Rick's Free Stuff page, http://www.names-n-lights.com/links.htm.

-- Doug Heacock is executive director of the Kansas Research and Educational Network at Kansas University. You may address questions to him in care of the Lawrence Journal-World, 609 N.H., Lawrence 66044, or e-mail him at heacock@kanren.net.

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