A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Free Money!!

The ads are popping up everywhere. We’ve seen them on the sidebar at Facebook and on the front page of The New York Times‘ online edition.

Yes, it's a scam in the New York Times. Is nothing sacred?The ads are enticing, promising to tell you how you can get your hands on a share of free government money. The pitch is a scam, promising free information for a small "shipping and handling" fee. What the ads aren’t telling you (at least not outside the fine print) is that unless you are careful, you’ll find yourself signed up for a recurring monthly charge.

Blogs from "John" and "Jennifer" and "Jason" bearing Web addresses like Johngetsgovernmentcash.com and officialstimuluschecks.com promise you as much as $12,000 in government grants, none of which you’ll ever have to pay back. We’re not linking to these sites because we don’t want to give them any traffic. But they are not what they appear. Indeed, the blogs of "John" and "Jason" are identical.Or maybe it's John's. Who can tell?

Look, it's Jason's site!Sites we examined promise that for a mere $1.99 (or possibly $2.95, depending on the site) in "shipping and handling fees" you will get access to a "toolkit" that will allow you to search and apply for hundreds or even thousands of government grant programs. What they don’t tell you is that you’re really applying for a membership that can rack up charges of $95 per month. Here, for instance, is the fine print (available by clicking on the "Terms of Service" link at the bottom of the page) for grantoneday.org:

By submitting the trial order you will receive instant access to the Members Area which contains the Online Grant Resource Guide’s online directories and tutorials for seven calendar days. After seven days, if you choose not to cancel, you will be billed your first monthly membership fee of $94.89 for continued access to GrantMemberServices.com- which is the exclusive Member’s Only website for GrantOneDay.org. Membership fees will be charged to the credit card initially used by you to complete the trial transaction.

Here’s how it works: You go to the site and sign up for your "free" CD, but you give your credit card number to cover the shipping & handling fee. Seven days later, you’re charged $94.89, unless you remember to call and cancel the order first. The charge will recur every month until you notice it and cancel your membership.

Even more insidiously, we found some sites that warn — or perhaps we should say "warn" — you about scams. But they are really just thinly-disguised fronts for the very scams they warn you about. Their "recommended" lists touted some of the worst offenders we found — including the $95/month ripoff.

Thegrantreview.org "warns" you about scammers, while directing you to some of the worst of the bunch.And what do you get for all this trouble? A list of government agencies that administer grants along with directions on how to apply. But here’s the thing: These scam Web sites get their information for free. Right off the Internet. Agencies that administer grant programs will tell you everything you need to know. For free.

So should you apply for government grants? We can’t really answer that for you. If you think you might be eligible, we’d suggest consulting a financial adviser. A real person, not some Web site promising you $12,000 government checks for a mere $1.99 investment.