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Watch out for the 'free' stuff

  • Story Highlights
  • Use caution when something is advertised or said to be "free"
  • No matter what high-pressure salesman says, if not in contract -- you don't get it
  • Read everything -- including fine print -- before signing anything
  • If it sounds too good to be true, check with the Better Business Bureau
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By Jen Haley
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(CNN) -- Donna and David Sloat love to travel. When they got a postcard that claimed they could get 50 percent off the price of cruises and 75 percent off condo vacations, they were intrigued.

Donna and David Sloat say they were promised a discount they didn't get.

The California couple went to a meeting to find out more. While they were there, the vacation travel club offered something they thought they couldn't refuse -- a complimentary cruise and two nights' stay at a hotel.

The Sloats became members.

As it turns out, the "complimentary cruise" cost the couple nearly $600. And that free two-night hotel stay? It never happened. There was an administrative error, Donna said.

But they were still hopeful about the club's prospects. "We decided to go ahead and pay for the cruise ... we bit the bullet," she said.

But the perks didn't get better. Three times throughout the year, Donna and David tried to take advantage of travel plans through the group. But each time, rates were the same or lower at other places that are open to the public.

"We enjoy traveling very much," Donna said. "So I'm always trying to get as good a deal as I can. When you're expecting to spend money and you get what you pay for, it's not a problem. But when you're promised a discount and you don't get it -- that's a problem."

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The saying goes "There's no such thing as a free lunch." But what happens when that "free lunch" costs $7,500?

Stephen and Jean Liang of Kansas City, Missouri, were on a weekend getaway trip to Branson, Missouri. While picking up a map, the couple was persuaded to attend a presentation on joining a travel club.

"They told us we could get $90 if we would sit for a 45-minute presentation," Jean said.

During the presentation, Stephen and Jean were told they could get discounted condo rates and other travel benefits around the world. They decided to join -- for $7,500. Jean said they were assured they could cancel within three days.

Before Stephen and Jean even left, they were offered a discount coupon for Red Lobster.

"We really enjoy Red Lobster," Jean said. "We thought it was a bonus for joining."

They were asked to sign a piece of paper after they received the card. The Liangs didn't think much about it.

"We thought we needed to sign it to show we'd gotten the card," Jean said.

But, unfortunately, Stephen and Jean didn't realize that by accepting the Red Lobster card, they had used the services of the travel club. And by signing that piece of paper, they were waiving their right to cancel their membership.

But the couple soon found out the next day when they tried to cancel.

Jean said they felt deceived. "This is really, really wrong. A person's word is what they are." The couple found out the hard way that it doesn't always work that way.

For the record, Red Lobster has no affiliation with the travel club.

Thousands of complaints have been filed with the Better Business Bureau about travel clubs in the last three years.

All these complaints tell a similar story of being lured -- either in person, over the phone or through the mail -- to a high-pressure sales presentation with the promise of receiving free airline tickets, gas cards, or tickets to shows.

Promises of free vacation tickets or maybe a free TV if you sit in on a time-share sales pitch are common. Although attendees may or may not get the item they were promised, one thing is sure -- they're a captive audience for some hard selling.

"They'll tell you the deal is only good for today; that you'll miss out on the opportunity," said Alison Preszler of the Better Business Bureau. "They want you to sign on the bottom line. They may make promises that aren't in the contract."

That's where the fine print comes in. In most cases, the offer is spelled out somewhere in the advertisement, according to Ed Dworsky of Mouseprint.org, a consumer advocacy Web site. But just don't expect it in the big print.

"You may win a stay at a resort," Dworsky said. "But they don't pay your way to a resort."

The trouble with almost anything advertised as free are the catches. "It could be that you're signing up for a year of something," Dworsky said. "They get you in the door with the low price."

Take car rentals, for example. Mouseprint.org highlights the case of a car that was advertised at just $8.95 a day. But once you read the fine print and add on all the fees and taxes, that car costs more like $26.88 a day.

It's especially important to look past the large print when buying a car. It may seem like a great deal -- but it can be a ruse to get you into that dealership.

Financing tactics are one of them. Zero percent financing is a great thing, but only if you qualify. In fact, only about a quarter of folks do, according to Philip Reed of Edmunds.com, an auto information Web site. "You need to have gold or platinum credit," he said.

Rock-bottom lease prices are another common tactic. Those low prices usually don't include tax and license fees -- or may apply to cars with the fewest options, like side airbags. That "low" lease offer could easily be 25 percent higher, Reed said.

And when scam artists get involved, free could be really expensive.

Beginning in February, televisions will switch from analog to digital signals. Consumers will need a digital TV or a converter box to get that signal.

A recent investigation by the Better Business Bureau found one company that was offering a "free" DTV converter box -- but you had to pay for a five-year warranty that was $59, plus shipping and handling. All told, the cost of the "free" box was about $100.

The travel club that the Sloats joined is still operating, but under a different name. It maintains an unsatisfactory rating with the Better Business Bureau. The travel club that duped the Liangs is still operating, but also under a different name.

So before you join or take advantage of deals, check out companies you're considering at the Better Business Bureau Internet site.

Rely on word-of-mouth to help you steer clear of bogus deals. Consumer Web sites such as fatwallet.com and epinions.com allow you to read customer reviews and post your own assessments.

Remember, there are some legit deals and freebies out there. But make sure you understand exactly what you're getting into.

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