I am more than a bit wary when it comes to free stuff.

Experience has taught me that the four-letter word “free” doesn’t always mean free in the truest sense.

Such a caveat emptor mentality should be applied to free software applications.

As the IT director for a small company, I can appreciate the attraction of freeware. The idea of stretching your IT dollars offers the promise of a much-needed respite to one’s constant struggle to manage a tight budget.

But here are a couple issues to consider.

First, the Web is one giant virtual haystack of free stuff. Finding the proverbial needle -- the one piece of software that suitably addresses your company’s requirements -- is a daunting task.

Two, there’s the issue of security or to be more precise the lack of security. Because anyone can access the free stuff on the Web, many viruses, worms, and spyware piggyback on them. Needless to say, free doesn’t look so free when you’re spending hours trying to cleanse your company’s computers and worse calling in an outside consultant.

So when downloading freeware from the Internet, err on the side of caution. Read user reviews before you download freeware and make sure to get them from reputable sites. I recommend SnapFiles.com and Download.com which is part of the CNET empire. Not only do they have a huge selection of freeware, they also test these free applications before making them available to the public.

Keep in mind some freeware sites require you to enter a network login and password. I encountered one of these sites which immediately triggered alarm bells. Never give out this information unless you are absolutely sure of the site’s reputation.

Of course, you can always count on the marketing folks to stretch the definition of free. I once downloaded Version Tracker, a utility software that shows you the status of all the drivers in your computer and lists the ones that need to be updated. It did a good job of identifying the drivers that needed my attention but when it came time to correct the outdated drivers, I was asked to purchase the full version of the software instead.

Applications like Version Tracker can cost anywhere between $19.95 and $75. In the end, I opted not to buy the full version. Apart from gaining nothing from downloading the software I was incessantly barraged by a window notification on my computer reminding me to buy the software and finally had to take the time to uninstall it as well.

Another point to consider is just because it’s free doesn’t mean you need it. Think twice before you click on that download button. Ask yourself first, “Do you really need the software?” Check your computer for any hidden tool that can perform the same function you are looking for.

It gives me no pleasure to plug Microsoft but the fact of the matter is Windows incorporates a raft of tools that never see the light of the day. It’s conceivable that Windows has already installed the needed application. You just didn’t know it. An example of this is Windows Defender a Microsoft product to prevent, remove and quarantine spyware. It rates in the top three of freeware for this type of removal. 

Equally important, never act as your company’s Trojan horse. Resist the urge to share any freeware with your colleagues at work.

We’ve had one such incident in our company where an employees decided to share this nifty ad-aware program he was using at home. When some users installed it on their PCs, the application caused problem, conflicting with a similar software program already installed on our servers.

With those caveats out the way, here are three free software programs that I recommend:

  • DimDim: Just like Citrix GoToMeeting or WebX online conferencing application, DimDim allows for both audio and video sharing. You have the option to host the application on your own server or use one of their servers. While the free version doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles, it is a web product that is truly free for a conference that has less than 20 participants.
  • Skype: Working seamlessly with an Internet connection. Skype-to-Skype calls are free and feature video, chat, and teleconferencing functionalities. If you make a substantial number of calls overseas this is the way to go.
  • PrimoOnline: With this freeware you can create high-quality PDF files from virtually any Windows application. It has the ability to optimize PDF output for screen, print, eBook and prepress, secure PDF files with 128-bit encryption, and add document information (e.g. title, author, subject, keywords) to converted PDF files.

There is a free lunch in the software sphere. It just requires due diligence.

Linda Wilson is the IT director of The Hoffman Agency, a global public relations firm with 120 employees.