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Free Food, Games, Movies and More: The Internet’s Best Deals

Whoever said there’s no such thing as a free lunch just didn’t have the Internet. Besides the plethora of free articles, videos, tutorials, manuals, software and other unmentionables the Web can serve up through your monitor, you can actually find an amazing selection of absolutely free real stuff. From magazines and toothpaste to cars and hot tubs, you can find it for free via the Internet… if you know where to look, and what to avoid. With that in mind, we’ve broken down the different major types of free offerings on the Web to give you taste for what’s out there and how to get it.

Freebies and Free Samples: Just A Taste

The age of the free sample predates the Internet by centuries – probably all the way back to when the first caveman offered his fellow Neanderthals a burning stick before selling them a bonfire. You probably stumble across offers for free samples in magazines and on the radio all the time, but the Internet makes it far easier to aggregate all these sources and put them in one place.

The best sites are the ones that update the most frequently, because the freshest offers have the best possibility of actually showing up in your mailbox, and the good stuff inevitably gets picks over within days or even hours. We prefer TotallyFreeStuff, Absurdly Cool Freebies, and Hey! It’s Free, which serves up some witty commentary along with your daily dose of free. TwitterFreebies even aggregates freebie-related Tweets for your convenience.

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Of course, before you go signing up for every free offer out there, be aware that there is a catch here: Most companies will expect you to sign up for their newsletter or agree to receive announcements in exchange for your goodies. In other words, there’s a good chance your e-mail and physical addresses will both be inundated with junk mail after you hit enough of these. You can spare your personal e-mail address by creating a second spam-only account with a service like Hotmail. Don’t use a fake address, because companies have gotten smart enough to deny addresses that bounce, or force you to click a link in a confirmation e-mail to get the goods. Unfortunately, there’s no good way to keep the fliers away once you start having stuff mailed to your real address, so be prepared with a hefty recycling bin when the freebies begin to flow.

Another Man’s Treasure: Recycling Used Items

Not all freebies have to come from companies with something to sell. Sometimes, people just have perfectly good stuff that they want to pass on to someone who can use it. And the Web just happens to be the perfect outlet for this fountain of goodwill.

Sites like Craigslist and Freecycle both maintain frequently updated lists of free items being given away in your area, and Kashless acts as an aggregator that combines both. Typically, offerings range from the old-but-still-good (like gently used baby clothes or leftover tile from a kitchen remodel) to large items that people typically can’t get rid of without paying someone to haul them away (like fill dirt from a pool installation or an old dryer).

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Mattresses, old TVs and couches are the staples of these sites, but occasionally, you’ll find some real gems, especially in ritzier areas where people would rather haul something to the curb for scavengers than deal with the hassle of trying to sell it. In our college years, we managed to score everything from a working air conditioner (that made summer in Brooklyn a lot more tolerable), to a working hot tub (that made winter in Syracuse a lot more tolerable).

Referral Freebies: Too Good To Be True?

We’ve all seen blinking banner ads advertising a free Xbox 360 or iPod Nano. If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably already chalked it up to a scam, but believe it or not, there’s actually some legitimacy to these offers.

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Here’s how it usually works: You sign up for an account with a company, then agree to try a number of products and services from sponsors. You get a number of your friends, say eight or so, to do the same, then finally get your free Xbox, iPod Nano, notebook computer, or whatever the case may be. The catch is in the offers you and your friends will have to sign up for. Many of them actually cost money, and the free ones usually require you to provide a credit card then cancel after a trial period – which can be a major hassle when you go to actually do it. You’ll also have to convince all those friends to sign up and put their credit cards on the line for you, and some less-than-reputable companies provide loopholes for themselves to discredit legitimate referrals so that you never reach the number needed to get your prize.

Bottom line: You really can get a free Xbox, but by the time you’re done jumping through hoops to get it, walking into Best Buy and laying down $300 might not actually look that bad.

Free After Rebate: The Lost Bargains

Box stores like CompUSA used to be famous for these deals. Flip open any Sunday circular ad and there would be whole pages of products advertised with a big fat $0. Follow the accompanying big fat asterisk, and you’d find that those items only come up for free after a mail-in rebate, but they were still worth the time for those with patience.

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Of course, after retail CompUSA locations went the way of the dodo, other stores seem to have also wisened up, and these deals are increasingly rare. Rebate-specific sites like FreeAfter.com have shuttered their doors in the drought, but that doesn’t mean the deals aren’t still out there.

The Hot Deals section of the deal-hunting site FatWallet hosts perhaps the best repository of free-after-rebate offers on the Web. Just select the “free-after-rebate” filter from the column on the left to see only the items that qualify.