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The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) today urged UK consumers to read the small print and shop around before embarking on any "free" PC deal. The move follows complaints about ISP Online-Direct, which is being investigated by the ASA over the hidden charges in its £99.99 "free" PC offer. The advert, in the national press this week, claims users can get a new PC - worth £220.99 - for just £99.99. But this price excludes the £64.99 obligatory warranty and £39.99 delivery charge, as well as VAT. These small additions bring the actual price to £222.47, with punters paying more than Online-Direct claims the machine is actually worth. According to the ASA, VAT must be included in any advert explicitly aimed at consumers. The ASA has been dishing out advice to users thinking about committing to one of the "free" PC deals. "The idea of the free PC seems to challenge the notion that there is no such thing as a free lunch", said an ASA representative. "But we would urge people to be extra cautious. There may be some amazing deals out there, but consumers should compare all offers before choosing one. Also, it is imperative to read all details in the adverts – as with any new type of product or offer." The Online-Direct deal includes an IBM MII 300 chip -- a regular addition to subsidised PC packages in the UK -- and comes with 2.1GB or 3.2GB hard drive. It has 32MB RAM, a 56k modem and 24 speed CD ROM. The company, based in London, also promises to refund the initial cost of the computer if punters spend an average of five hours a month online over a two-year period. Users who already have a PC can sign-up for the company's We Pay You scheme. At the end of 12 months, consumers will be refunded 10 to 20 per cent of their call charges, according to an Online-Direct representative. There are also plans for a share scheme, but no details were available. ®

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