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4 Free Apps That Can Earn You Extra Cash

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Let’s say you want to earn some extra pocket cash, but you’re short on free time (and energy). Your phone might be a good place to start. There are quite a few apps designed to help you earn some extra dough, either in the form of gift cards or standard cold, hard cash.

There is a trade off, however. Nearly any kind of reward app, even the legitimate ones, will track at least some of your personal data.

Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate at Comparitech.com, says that these apps typically collect data for marketing purposes. “Some types of data these apps can collect about you include: websites visited, real-time location, online purchases, other apps you use, your entire contact list and search queries,” he said. Watch out for apps that collect background data — you can find that information in the app’s privacy policy when you sign up. Of course, privacy policies are often lengthy and hard to understand, so it helps to know what you’re looking for.

What to Look for in an App’s Privacy Policy Before You Install

By signing up for almost any app, you agree to share some personal information. That’s not to say your information isn’t safe, but it’s a good reminder to always make sure you read the fine print before downloading. So what exactly should you look for in an app’s privacy policy?

1. What They Do With Your Data: Find out what kind of data is collected, how that data is used, how long the company retains it, and whom they share it with, Mr. Bischoff said. “Giving up your privacy to a data-collection company should not be done lightly,” he warned. “Both iOS and Android alert users when an app asks for a new permission.” That might be permission to access your location, photos or contacts, for example. “Think about whether that permission is really necessary for the app to work or if it’s just using that permission to mine more personal data,” he said.

2. How They Make Money: “From a consumer’s standpoint, it’s important to understand what the monetization model is for the company that makes these apps,” added Kowsik Guruswamy, chief technology officer at Menlo Security. “That alone can be very revealing in how the companies plan to use their data.” For example, an app might make money through sponsorships with the brands it partners with or it might offer customers paid upgrades. However, it’s also likely it makes money selling your data to advertisers or other third parties, which is why it’s important to note what kind of data it tracks and how it uses it.

3. What Other Users Have to Say: Beyond reading the fine print, you can also research the app’s reputation via online reviews. Pay special attention to reviews that address privacy issues. “While many apps offer legitimate means to make money — taking surveys, snapping photos of local businesses, lock screen ads, and reviewing products — be wary of apps that seem too good to be true,” Mr. Bischoff said. “Sometimes an app combines a legitimate cash-for-task model with background data collection, so watch out for that, too.”

Moneymaking Apps That Make the Grade

We looked at dozens of apps that promise to help you make money from the comfort of your smartphone, and most of them aren’t worth your time. Some, however, do what they promise, even if the trade off is a good bit of your personal data.

If you’re willing to trade, the following (free) apps are well established and can legitimately help you earn cash back. No, you won’t fund your retirement or put a down payment on your home, but you can earn a few bucks to pay for your latte — or dare we suggest, avocado toast?

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SwagbucksCreditVideo by Swagbucks

If you don’t mind searching the web, answering surveys or watching videos, you can earn a few “Swagbucks,” which you can then trade in for gift cards at places like Amazon, Starbucks, Home Depot and more.

“I typically cash out the Swagbucks for gift cards that I use on Amazon to buy household goods,” said Cherie Lowe, a personal finance writer and author of the book “Slaying the Debt Dragon.” Ms. Lowe has used the app for nearly eight years, earning around $3,000 worth of gift cards over all. “I did save up enough to get $600 to put toward a laptop at the Apple store at one point in time,” she added.

You can earn one Swagbuck for every dollar you spend at certain online retailers, too. According to the Swagbucks website, this is the equivalent of earning 1 percent cash back. With online surveys, you typically earn 40 to 200 Swagbucks (100 Swagbucks = $1), according to the site. You can also earn a few Swagbucks for watching videos, and the app will tell you how long you can expect to spend watching. You’ll spend about half an hour and earn a few points.

When it comes to privacy, Mr. Guruswamy says apps like Swagbucks often use cookies to track your information. “So by using Swagbucks, not only is the user giving away a lot of their personal information, they are also opening themselves to being monitored and tracked by all of the Swagbucks’ affiliates,” he said. “The bottom line is that you have to read the fine print.” You can check out the privacy policy here.

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What is Shopkick?CreditVideo by Shopkick

Shopkick rewards you for shopping at stores you probably visit anyway: CVS, Marshall’s and Best Buy are a few of its partner retailers.

“Shopkick I primarily use in Target,” said Ms. Lowe. “Because why not get rewarded when you’re there? I like that you can cash out your rewards at as little as $2 in gift cards, too. Every little bit helps. I typically stockpile and cash out around Christmas to supplement our budget.”

Once you download the app, you earn points, or “kicks,” every time you spend at partner retailers. You can earn kicks without spending, too, by checking into stores or scanning certain items. While you won’t get cash back directly, you can trade the points for gift cards to dozens of partner retailers. In short, Shopkick essentially works like any other rewards shopping site except there’s no need to hop through a portal to earn your points. Just spend with your card as you normally would.

Of course, you have to link your credit or debit card to earn points with your spending, so if you’re worried about your privacy with this app, keep that in mind. With so many data breaches lately, you might be apprehensive to connect your card to the app. While it does collect data about your transactions (which is necessary to automatically earn “kicks”), it doesn’t store your actual credit card information. “If a user has a linked credit or debit card associated with his or her Shopkick account, that information solely and securely remains with Visa or Mastercard,” said Bill Demas, the app’s chief executive officer. Read the privacy policy here.

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How to Use Ibotta: Live Life RewardedCreditVideo by Ibotta

Ibotta is a couponing app, but instead of getting a discount on your purchases, you get cash back rebates. You check the app for offers, $1 cash back on a pizza brand, for example, and then either scan your receipt or link the app to your store loyalty cards so your savings are automatic. Ibotta accepts receipts only from participating stores and retailers, but most of the big players are listed: Whole Foods, Walmart, Ralph’s, Kroger, HEB. Some offers will apply to only one retailer; others might be valid at several.

“I use Ibotta regularly and have made $253 so far,” said Jessica Landon, an avid Ibotta user who’s been using the app for about a year and a half. “I usually look up offers before I head in the store, then upload and scan the products right when I get in my car so I don’t forget.” She said staples like produce usually earn only about 25 cents cash back, but it can add up. “Buying beer for my husband usually gets me larger amounts. Diapers is another item that can earn you cash back faster.”

In its privacy policy, Ibotta is clear about the information it collects, which includes your contact information, search queries, transaction information and location, and why it collects it. Ibotta also places cookies on your device to “recognize you when you return, and track and target your interests in order to provide a customized experience,” according to the privacy policy.

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UserTesting Quick TourCreditVideo by UserTesting

With UserTesting, you get paid to offer feedback on a website. The pay is $10 per test, and it involves visiting a website, completing some tasks, then recording your feedback about the user experience. While you’re visiting the app, UserTesting uses software to record your mouse movements, clicks and your voice. The tasks take about 10 to 20 minutes to complete.

To use the software, you will need an internet connection and a microphone and to be able to download their testing software. If you want to take mobile tests, you’ll need an iPhone, iPad, Android phone or Android tablet. You’re paid via PayPal.

Privacy-wise, you want to be extra careful with apps that track your behavior in this way. Of course, UserTesting needs to track your experience, as that’s the entire point of the service.

According to its privacy policy, when you participate in a test, the app will “capture video or photographic recordings of your face, audio recordings of your voice, screen recordings of your actions on the device on which you downloaded the Screen Recorder, and video or audio recordings of any other sights or sounds that are captured by your device camera or microphone during a Usability Test.” To protect the data you share, they use SSL technology to encrypt your information.

Kristin Wong is a freelance writer and the author of “Get Money.”

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