FTC cracks down on 'Free gift card' text messages

If you have a cell phone that can send and receive text messages, chances are you've received a text that says you've won a free gift card to Best Buy or Walmart. If you responded, you're not alone.

The Federal Trade Commission just filed charges against 29 individuals and corporations, operating under names such as Ecommerce Merchants, Superior Affiliate Management, RentBro Incorporated and Advert Marketing. Investigators say the defendants were part of an elaborate and confusing scheme devised to get sensitive personal information and money, by making you think you were getting a freebie.

According to court documents included in the FTC news release, the unsolicited text messages direct you to a website so you can enter your special code. A link in that website directs you to one of several third party websites that want more information about where to send your gift card, but in addition to your name and address, you have to answer personal questions- your date of birth, your cell phone number. Do you have diabetes? Do you want to go back to school?

Investigators say those third party websites ultimately require you to participate in ten or more unrelated offers many of which require to you pay to subscribe for services, and often end up with recurring charges on your credit card account.

In announcing the crackdown, the Federal Trade Commission filed complaints in courts across the country seeking restraining orders to stop what investigators call unfair and deceptive practices. They say the people behind the alleged scams sent 180 million spam texts, and the cost to unwitting consumers is estimated to be in the millions of dollars.

If you get an unsolicited offer claiming you've won something for free, regardless of who it appears to be from, do not respond. Do not click on the link. Just delete it right away.

And share this report with anyone you suspect might take the bait. Remember, many people are surprisingly trusting. They don't take time to investigate and they do not follow news alerts. There are also thousands of young people who have yet to learn there is no such thing as a "free gift".