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Cheapskate chic

If the best things in life are free, today’s Web may be a mixed blessing at best. Witness the glut of giant tech company mergers and previously unthinkable media partnerships (MS-NBC, anyone?). Everywhere you look, business is seeping into everything online. It doesn’t matter if they call it e-commerce, i-business or even "safe, secure online ordering!" The real message is obvious: Somewhere, somebody in cyberspace wants to take your money.

And why not? Online commerce is far more convenient than the old-fashioned, pay-at-the-register technique.

Plus, making a virtual buck isn’t just the American way these days. It’s the way.

Yes, we’ve got a brand-new, high-tech and increasingly interconnected global economy out there, and savvy entrepreneurs across the planet are lining up to make it easier for you to buy now and buy often. So grab those credit cards and start clicking.

But still … paying for stuff is nowhere near as much fun as learning where you can get it for free. And in my opinion, the Web’s initial promise of online sharing, cooperation and noncommercialized community remains an integral part of its charm. In fact, it’s a crucial chunk of what makes the Internet so intangibly "cool."

There’s an old haggler’s saying that reminds us: "Somewhere in the world, you can always find what you’re buying at an even lower price." And online, there’s still no better price than not paying anything at all.

Where online, you might ask? Gather ’round and I’ll let you in on a little secret: As Web commerce sites have proliferated, so have the number of Web pages that specialize in finding the free stuff. That’s right. You may not have heard of them, but these cyber bastions of cheapskate chic make it their business to let you know where you can get the goods people are just giving away. And, no, they don’t make you pay for the privilege.

Start by pointing your browser at the Free Site (www.thefreesite.com). One of the Net’s most popular free stuff destinations, the Free Site specializes in computer-oriented freebies. If you’re looking for a no-charge e-mail provider, or a free Web page for your baby photos, this is the site to see.

Plus, many of the Free Site’s numerous links connect to all sorts of cool computer downloads – including fonts, graphic images, Web tools and other related offerings. The usual suspects are here (browsers, screensavers and so forth), but several unusual items distinguish themselves immediately – personalized e-mail post cards (featuring goth-inspired vampire greetings at www.pathwaytodarkness.com), computer games based on TV’s warrior princess Xena (www.xenafan.com/games), and even a selection of frankly twisted practical joke programs (check out "Bad Day" at www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Villa/ 7632/badday.html – it can inexplicably turn your unsuspecting co-worker’s PC screen image upside down).

Free software is fun, but perhaps the best freebies are those you’ll use offline. Enter the appropriately titled Freeclutter.com, another popular freebie destination that uncovers the sort of nonvirtual freeware that companies like to give away in the hope of attracting future customers.

Yes, here you’ll find links to the latest in free promotional goodies and leftover factory seconds – including cat food samples, unclaimed corporate logo T-shirts, mouse pads imprinted with ads for new mutual funds, music CDs from unknown rock acts and a whole array of miscellaneous free office supplies. The office supply swag is particularly plentiful – everything from adhesive labels to sloganed pocket protectors.

But wait. There’s more.

Check out the "HOT! HOT! HOT!" (their words, not mine) Top 50 Free Stuff site (www.top50.to) and discover links to hundreds more freebie destinations. You can even vote for your favorites, and the top 50 results change daily. (Last week’s No. 1 site can be found at www.phreeryder.com/ freestuff.html … oddly enough, it’s called #1 Freebies).

So there must be a catch, right? Well, yes. A few of these freebie offers do require you to pay modest shipping and handling charges. But more often, the giveaways are sponsored by businesses that ask you to provide your e-mail address and complete an online survey, thus increasing your vulnerability to online advertising.

However, if you’re the type that doesn’t mind indulging in this kind of "something-for-nothing" thrill seeking online, why worry? What’s a little spam between friends? You can always change your e-mail address.

As they say about more "respectable" goods (you know, the ones with price tags), let the buyer beware. And most of this stuff doesn’t cost a dime anyway.

Plus, if you can’t beat ’em, you might as well join ’em. One recent addition on these freebie pages are links to "get paid" sites. These sites pay you "points" to fill out surveys, receive commercial e-mail and click on Web ads (check out cybergold.com or mypoints.com, if you’re interested). These points can later be redeemed for goods at an array of big business locations such as the Olive Garden and Blockbuster Video.

Of course, you’ll have to spend your time looking at ads to get the points. And they do say that time is money.

Don’t they?

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