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What's that billboard you're driving?

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.

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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.

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