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The e-mail messages are tantalizing: "Your complimentary iPod with free shipping is waiting."

The lesson is that the only thing on this earth that is truly free is your mother's love. Everything else has a string or catch attached.

Gratis Internet, a Web marketer based in Washington, has developed a system in which it buys pricey products like iPods - - and gives them away. To receive the iPod, participants are asked to
sign up for one of about 10 different offers and to persuade five others to do the same. They have developed similar programs giving out
$700 desktop computers (, $800 flat-screen televisions ( and high-end designer handbags ( The main difference between the offers is how many others must be signed up for the main participant to receive the "free" merchandise. Its customers include Time Warner's AOL; BMG Music Service, a CD club owned by Bertelsmann; and USA Today, which is owned by the Gannett Company.

Susan Grant, director of the National Fraud Information Center, a project of the National Consumers League, said "free" offers on the Internet should be examined closely for underlying costs. Typically, a business will need to cover the amount of the prize and such offers will be followed by an onslaught of solicitations. "I don't think a lot of people would really stop to think about the implications," she said. Random spam filled the in-box he relies on for orders, and legitimate e-mail messages got lost, he said. The situation worsened when he tried to use the "unsubscribe" option on a spam note. He said his computer locked up, and after it was restarted, files began opening 50 to 60 times in row and the computer ran at a crawl.

Via The New York Times: A Web Offer Too Good to Be True? Read the Fine Print