Cash-Back Web Sites: Profit While You Shop

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By Eileen A.J. Connelly, AP Personal Finance Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Everyone knows that if you're spending, you aren't really saving, no matter how enticing the sale.

But there is a way that shopping can actually put money in your pocket — cash-back Web sites.

The concept is simple: You log into a site that provides links to retailers, each of which offer a certain percentage cash back for your purchase. Then every few months, you get a check in the mail — or a deposit to your PayPal account.

Sites large and small offer this type of service. One of the most popular, and oldest, is Ebates.com, founded in 1999.

CEO Kevin Johnson said the San Francisco-based company has returned more than $60 million to its customers. It currently has more than 10 million registered users, with the typical check averaging about $30. Johnson said the largest check the company ever sent was for $45,000. "That was a power shopper," he quipped.

There is no sign-up fee on Ebates, and members who refer others who spend at least $20 get a $5 bonus. The site also offers special bonus programs for multiple referrals.

Ebates offers cash back of up to 25% — 3% or 4% is most common — through about 1,200 retailers, from department stores like Macy's and Nordstrom to discounters like Overstock.com. Wal-Mart, Target and eBay, along with a range of specialty retailers and services like cell phone providers and travel Web sites can all be accessed through the site.

"Anything you can buy online, you can get cash back on," Johnson said.

Among its newest competitors are Retailcashback.com, a venture that launched last year, and Microsoft's Bing.com.

Retailcashback.com is owned by VastEdge Inc., a Cupertino, Calif.-based Web site operator. CEO Vik Mehta said the company hasn't started marketing yet, and has about 100 customers who have found the site on their own. It links to about 1,500 merchants, Mehta said.

Bing.com may be familiar as a search engine, but you may be unaware of its retail side. Like the others, the retailers accessed through Bing.com's cash-back program decide the amount the purchases earn, and in some cases which products are eligible.

Bing makes it easy to compare prices, because searches are organized by product. Each search lists a retailer, the percentage cash back that's available and the retail price, along with a link to the store.

Ebates is organized by product category, but then links directly to the retailer without providing comparison prices.

One complaint voiced by some consumers is that online coupons typically do not work in conjunction with the cash-back sites. Ebates.com offers its own coupons. Bing does not, and warns that using any external coupons could void the cash reward for that purchase, although some stores may allow double-dipping.

The cash-back sites typically earn a fee from the retailers based on how much customers spend. The sites send checks out on a quarterly basis for administrative reasons and to allow the checks to add up to a sizable amount.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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