I'd been meaning to write something about this for a while now, but it got lost in the shuffle when I moved cross-country last month. While I was still in Phoenix, I would see advertisements from Best Buy, Fry's Electronics, and CompUSA, among other places, touting "free" or almost-free systems. Of course, these systems require the customer to purchase three years of an online service, typically CompuServe, at a cost of about $400. So a "free" computer actually costs about $400, which is still an incredible value. The problem with these ads, of course, is the fine print: I found the wording in the ads to be highly deceptive.

After I arrived in Boston, I was shocked to see the same kinds of ads, this time coming from Boston-area stores, with duplicate wording for "free" PC offers. I've actually begun inquiring about whether the state's Attorney General has looked into this, and was recently gladdened to see that at least one state--New York--is indeed looking into the "free PC" scam.

The problem with these ads, of course, is that most of the people reading them have no idea what's going on. And preying on ignorance, in ads that are clearly designed to be deceptive, is clearly a problem. The Office of the New York State Attorney General advises its constituents to contact them via the Web or phone should they feel that they've entered into an unfair agreement. They've also provided a Web page with advice about buying into one of these schemes that supplies information that every consumer should know:

  • There is no such thing as a "free" computer.

  • A computer that is purchased today will likely feel underpowered and slow in three years.

  • Not all areas have local access numbers for Internet access. Make sure the three-year deal you sign includes a local phone number.

  • "Free" computers often do not include hardware that is essential to the operation of the computer, such as a monitor, printer, or other device.
For more information, please visit the "Computer Rebate Offers" page at the Web site of the Office of New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

--Pau