It sounds like a great deal: A company gives you a free car or pays you to drive your own car. The trade-off: The car has been transformed into a moving billboard, sporting advertising for a product or service.

It might be a great deal. Or it could be a scam. So before you fill out that application, you need to do some investigating.

“We found that there are quite a few companies out there that pretty much all they are doing is luring people in,” says Chris Dyson, co-founder of Ads On Wheels Inc., a New Hampshire-based firm that experimented with wrapping consumer cars several years ago but no longer offers the service. “Like anything else on the Internet, you’ve got to take it with a grain of salt.”

Here are the top tip-offs to a rip-off:

The company wants money. “If you have to pay for it, there’s something wrong,” says Drew Livingston, president and co-founder of FreeCar Media, an L.A.-based marketing firm, which hires consumers and wraps their cars in temporary advertising for a variety of clients.

The company is promising a free car. “There are tons of companies out there, unfortunately, that take advantage of consumers,” says Livingston. And while his company and a few others will wrap a consumer’s own car in advertising, “there is no such thing as a company that will give you a free car,” he says. His company tried it twice, but the economics “just don’t make sense in the advertising world.”

The hype makes it sound like all you have to do is sign up and you’ll be selected. The truth is the odds are against you. And legitimate companies will admit this.

FreeCar Media is one of the few companies using consumer car wrapping on a large scale. They have more than one million potential drivers in their database, says Livingston. And they have hired about 6,000 to have their cars wrapped in the last six years. One driver, who made $1,800 driving his wrapped sport utility vehicle for three months remembers, “It was like winning the lottery, basically.”

So before you sign up for anything, acknowledge that your chances of getting chosen are pretty slim. “Something may come of it, something may not,” Dyson says.

How to protect yourself from scams
There are very few companies actually paying consumers for the privilege of turning their cars into movable ads. The concept was really hot a few years ago. While the idea is still around, “There are not a lot of companies out there doing it,” says Thaddeus Bartkowski, co-founder of AdSmart Outdoor Advertising Inc. He says that while his company still does a small amount of car wrapping, “the novelty has worn off.

“The reality is that consumers need to be aware of organizations that want $25, $35, $45 to give you access,” he says.

Many times, scammers will simply send the consumer a list of companies that used to or still use consumer drivers for wrapped cars.

“I can’t tell you how many countless calls we get from people saying they spent $25 and now they want a free car,” Bartkowski says.

Want to protect yourself from scammers? Ask a few questions of your own before you answer any of theirs.

Does the company have a physical address and phone number? A real company will have an address, and they won’t be shy about sharing it. Ditto a phone number, and it should be United States-based.

“If there’s just an e-mail address and that’s it, forget it,” Dyson says.

What is the company’s reputation? Look them up on Google. Call the state attorney general’s office in their home state and yours. Find out who their clients are. Ask for references from past consumer drivers and call them. How regularly do they do this, and what do past drivers have to say about them?

“You’re going to want a company that has performed this service before,” says Dyson. “There are a few companies that all they do is collect fees and put your name in a database.”

Are you dealing with an actual company that has clients? Is this company going to match your car and driving patterns with the advertising needs of their corporate clients, or are they promising to pass your name on to someone who might? There are only a few companies who actually hire consumers for this type of job, and you want to deal directly with them, says Dyson. “Stay away from the middlemen.”

What do they require of a driver? A legitimate company won’t promise jobs to everyone. They have standards, too. Most basic: They need someone with a clean driving record and a fairly new car.

For instance, FreeCar Media mandates that drivers have no DUIs and no more than one speeding ticket in the past three years, says Livingston. Car types run the gamut, but they are usually 1998 or newer and have to be clean and in good shape. “We want them on the road, not in the shop,” he says.

They also look for extroverts. “You don’t sign up to have advertising on your vehicle if you’re shy,” Livingston says.

The bottom line: Don’t part with any money, shop the company as carefully as they should be shopping you, and realize that it is a long-shot.

“There is a substantial amount of people out there who would love the opportunity to drive their own car or drive a free car,” says Bartkowski. “The reality is the advertising demand is not sufficient to meet the needs of everyone who would want to drive at one time.”

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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