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msnbc.com

The spam offers sound so absurd it’s hard to imagine who might actually fall for them. They come with brash promises like “Get Your New Car for Just $17.95.” But, like many inviting sales pitches, it holds a grain of truth. Some lucky people really are getting paid to drive, and in rare cases, receive a free new car as an advertising promotion. So the New York State Consumer Protection Board is warning consumers that Web sites selling information on how to get a free new car are really just taking Web users for a ride.

DO AN INTERNET search for “Get paid to drive” or “Free car” and you’ll find hundreds of “free car” Web sites with names like TotallyFreeCars.com, AllFreeCars.net, and GetPaidDriving.com.

The sites make some bold promises: “Get a free car today! No Lease! No Payments.” Or, “If you are sick and tired of paying that car payment, then we have the solution for you! Now you can get a new free car like literally millions of people around the world,” or “Now you can get totally FREE New Cars! No catch, no gimmick, no hidden costs.” Except for the one-time $29 fee.

The Web sites are so successful that at least one publicly-traded company has joined the industry. EUniverse Inc., which operates a wide swath of Internet properties, is behind at least three of the free car sites: GetPaidDriving.com, AllFreeCars.com, and AllFreeCars.net. The three sites are owned by eUniverse division ResponseBase, according to operators who answered calls placed to the phone number listed at each site’s domain registration contact information.

The company, once a Wall Street darling, has faced trouble of late: in May it announced it was the subject of an “informal inquiry” by the SEC after revealing some of its quarterly earnings reports would have to be revised.

Free car sites are one of the fastest-growing get-rich-quick schemes on the Internet, said Jon Sorenson, spokesman for the New York State Consumer Protection Board. He suspects thousands have signed up with free car sites, paying between $10 and $50 for a chance at a free car. But all the consumers get for their money, he said, is a list of Web sites — a list that’s available for free in other places.

The for-fee free car sites lure consumers because there really are a handful of companies that will pay consumers to wrap their own private cars in brand-name advertisements, then drive them around town. Participants in Los Angeles-based FreeCar Media programs get $400 a month, for example. And on rare occasions, the legitimate car-advertising company has given away cars to consumers as part of a promotion.

But there certainly aren’t millions of recipients around the world; in fact, odds of being selected are quite small. More important, consumers can get on FreeCar Media’s list of potential drivers for free. Web sites charging fees for access to any pay-for-driving programs are misleading, said Teresa A. Santiago, Chairperson and Executive Director of the Consumer Protection Board.

“The phony application fees range from $25 to $40 and are being charged over the Internet by scam artists who have no connection to the handful of companies that legitimately sell car advertising,” she said.

Drew Livingston, president of Free Car Media, says the free car Web sites have become a tremendous nuisance for his company since they began popping up about a year ago. Frustrated consumers who have paid money to access his Web site often end up dissatisfied, and complain to him. Many ask his firm for a refund.

“I sometimes get hundreds of e-mails a day,” he said. “We try to respond to as many as we can ... We even have a special extension here now that explains to people if you have been charged, you have been scammed. These people have created a real headache for us.”

The complaints come in flurries, Livingston said, after spammers working for the Web sites send out a new wave of e-mails. Anti-spam newsgroups are full of complaints about the e-mail marketing tactics of free car Web sites — many citing a complex network of affiliate Web sites which share profits with the main pay-for-driving sites.

Ray Van Tassel paid $25 to sign up with a free car site over a year ago and hasn’t gotten anything for his money.

“I wrote to them many times telling them that this sounds like a scam, I never got any response from them or any sponsors, so I asked them for my money back, but never got that either,” Van Tassel said.

But Susan Phillips, who runs TotallyFreeCars.com, defended her Web site, which she said has been operating for almost two years. Phillips said she provides a worthwhile service to consumers for a one-time $29 fee.

“They have access to list of companies that offer either free cars or wrap their own cars and will be compensated monthly,” she said. “There is the convenience of getting it all in one spot. And I give other information on my site as well.” Dissatisfied customers are also entitled to refunds, she said.

Todd Smith, a spokesperson for eUniverse, responded with similar comments in an e-mail exchange.

“GetPaidDriving.com provides consumers with a database of companies that are either looking for candidates to drive their cars or will pay consumers to drive their own vehicles with advertising added. A low, one-time only fee is charged for this service,” Smith wrote. “Basically, this fee is to cover our expenses for maintaining the site and updating the database on a regular basis. To ensure that our customers are happy with their purchases, we have a policy of providing a full refund, upon request.”

But 1 million consumers have signed up with Free Car Media, Livingston said, and none of them had to pay to be in the company’s database of potential paid drivers.

“If something is advertised as ‘free’ you shouldn’t be spending money to get it,” the Consumer Protection Board’s Santiago said.

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