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CHECK OUT WEB SITES OFFERING ONLINE REBATES

Only the most dedicated shoppers go through the trouble of completing rebate forms, cutting out UPS codes and mailing everything. But rebates can be much easier when you shop online.

Several sites have sprung up that give you cash back on purchases. The most popular are Ebates.com, Butterflymall.com, RebateShare.com, FatWallet.com and MrRebates.com.

Instead of going directly to a retailer's Web site, you sign up at one of these shopping portals and click on their links to get to the Web site where you want to shop. Each has over 500 participating stores, including big names such as Target, Barnes and Nobel, Office Depot, Circuit City, Dell, Travelocity and Expedia.

You complete your purchase just as you normally would. Then, a percentage of the money you spent -- usually 1 percent to 5 percent -- goes into your account.

After a certain amount of time or when you reach a certain dollar amount, the company sends you a check. Ebates, which started in 1998 and has 6 million registered users, says its average rebate check is $56.

Ebates and its competitors make their money from commissions they get from the retailers each time someone clicks through to their site and makes a purchase. These rebate sites then split that commission with consumers. "A lot of the time, consumers don't know about us, and that there's a better way to shop," said Allesandro Isolani, one of the founders of Ebates. "We feel getting cash back on purchases is an unbeatable deal."

People have two different philosophies when it comes to using these rebate sites. In one corner are consumers who figure out which site they like best and use only that site. This way, they get their checks faster.

Other consumers like to use all of them, depending on who gives the best rebate. But it takes longer to accumulate enough money for a check. Butterflymall sends rebate checks when you reach $12. Ebates sends a check every three months as long as you have at least $5 in your account. RebateShare and Mr. Rebates send a check once you reach $25. FatWallet, which we found to be the most difficult site to navigate, will send a check once your account reaches $10.

Rebates do vary between the sites, with no one site consistently offering the highest rebates.

For example, RebateShare gives 2.5 percent back at Target. Both Butterflymall and Ebates give 4 percent. FatWallet gives 4.4 percent. And Mr. Rebate gives 5 percent.

But at 123InkJets.com, Ebates gives 10 percent back. Mr. Rebate, FatWallet and RebateShare give 15 percent. And Butterflymall gives 21.6 percent (excluding laser toner).

Most of these sites also put money in your account each time you refer a friend. Butterflymall goes a step further and also gives you 10 percent of your friend's commission -- up to seven levels deep. It's basically the same setup as companies such as Avon.

Other sites such as Ebates will sometimes have coupons that you can use with the rebates. You may need to disable any pop-up blockers to see these deals.

But you don't need these sites to get rebates. You can do it yourself if you own a Web site.

On the home page of many retailers is a link called "Affiliates" or "Affiliate Program." You can put a link to Target or the Gap on your Web site and whenever someone clicks on it and makes a purchase, these retailers would give you 5 percent. It doesn't matter if virtually no one visits your site. It could be just you and your family.

"Affiliate marketing is the biggest secret of the Internet," said Dan Sondhelm, owner of Butterflymall, which is based in Alexandria, Va. "Most consumers don't know when you click from one site to another, somebody's getting paid for that."

The only problem with getting your rebate directly is that many companies won't send you a check until you've accumulated $25 to $100 in rebates. If only you and your family use the site, that could take a long time.

Just because you're getting a rebate and cash back on a purchase, doesn't mean you're getting the best deal. Before looking at the rebates, make sure you've found the lowest price for the item you're buying.

Let's say you want the DVD of "Shrek 2." Barnes and Nobel offers a 4 percent rebate at Ebates and Butterfly. But the DVD costs $20.98. Amazon.com sells it for $17.99. Even with the 4 percent rebate (84 cents), you're better off going with rebateless Amazon.

And also consider whether there's a coupon code you could use with a retailer. Sometimes, you can't use both the coupon code and get a rebate. Do the math to find out which will save you more.

e-mail: lhaarlander@buffnews.com