Beware bogus ipad contestsYou see them at almost every corner of the Internet -- free iPads from contests that require you to do nothing but enter a drawing, write an essay, or tweet about it. It's a simple and relatively inexpensive ($499 is the entry price for a new iPad) way for a company to get people to its Web site, using social media to attract readers instead of paying for advertising.

But how do you know if the contest is legitimate or a ruse to get users to provide personal information to phishers? There are lots of telltale signs that a Web site could be phishing for your information, which we'll get to later. But first, why iPads, and why so many contests?

"Everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon," said Guy King, co-founder of RetailMeNot.com, an online coupon site that on Tuesday awarded Tracey Krause of Winnipeg an iPad for retweeting a message about its iPad contest.

King, speaking to WalletPop in a telephone interview from Melbourne, Australia, said his company joined the iPad bandwagon as an experiment on marketing without having to buy ads. "It's our way of getting in the social media space," he said.

The latest electronic gadget is a good lure because it's cool and isn't always something a contestant will buy, but wants, said King, whose company just started a contest for a grand prize of $5,000 for showing, in a YouTube video wedding toast, how RetailMeNot helps people shop. But cash awards don't have as much pizazz as an iPad, King said.

"I think money can be cold and boring at times," he said.

Krause said in a telephone interview Wednesday that she rarely enters online contests, and doesn't enter any that ask for personal information, but the RetailMeNot iPad contest caught her eye because it was so easy to do. She first learned of it when a friend retweeted about the contest to her.

A contest, whether for an iPad or whatever the hottest gadget is, usually doesn't set the bar high by asking people to write an essay, but is a chance to get people who are already engaged with a Web site to spread the word, said Dion Lim, president of SimplyHired.com, a job search Web site that rolled out its own iPad contest on March 18. Entrants simply tweet what their ultimate dream job would be and include the hashtag #shdreamjob. Judges will pick winners.

An iPad was chosen because it has broad appeal and Apple has a spirit of innovation that SimplyHired supports, Lim said in an interview with WalletPop.

There are lots of legitimate sites giving away iPads, but there are some you should look at with skepticism. Go with your instinct on a site you trust and know well. If the Web site looks like it was built overnight, it could be shady.

Nick Vivion, whose Web site unicornbooty.com is giving away an iPad when the site launches April 3, said in an e-mail that consumers should carefully read the terms and conditions of any contest to determine what is being given away for free. Contestants should not be required to buy something to qualify for an entry.

ESET, an anti-virus company that protects against computer security threats, has these tips for avoiding scammers using iPads as bait:
  • Check a company's reputation with the Better Business Bureau and search online for what people are saying about it. Do a search for the company name, Web site address and keywords such as "fraud" and "scam."
  • Make sure it's a giveaway and not a clever advertisement. Would you sign up for the service or subscription if the free iPad were not being offered? As WalletPop recently wrote, a customer signing up for a service may have their credit card charged again and again for something they don't want.
  • What personal information is required to participate? Giving out your name and e-mail address could lead to more spam. Giving your shipping address could lead to junk mail. Never give out your telephone number, birth date, driver's license number, Social Security number or tax ID number, which identity thieves are eager for. A site that asks for financial information, such as bank accounts or credit card numbers, should raise an alarm with you that it's not legit.
  • Don't download or run a program on your computer as part of the promotion. A truly free offer won't track your Internet usage.
Since many of the contests only have one winner, it may be wiser to buy an iPad than to possibly deal with all of the spam, letters and unwanted phone calls that telemarketers will make to contestants who don't win the grand prize.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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