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Insider Deals: Sweet, If You Can Score Them You don't have to be a PC vendor's friend, relative, or employee to snag deals that were created for the benefit of exclusive groups of insiders.

Savvy Web shoppers are always on the lookout for coupons that can save them money on tech gear. But all coupon codes are not created equal, and most of the best ones aren't distributed to the masses. Here is the scoop on snagging insider deals--offers that are meant for family, friends, employees, or affiliates, and that can substantially reduce the cost of PCs and other electronics.

Most major vendors have insider or exclusive coupon deals, often redeemable on special areas of their Web sites. Some of these sites are more accessible than others: The Employees and Affiliates Store in Dell's Member Purchase Program doesn't seem to require any proof that you're an employee or affiliate, while Lenovo's Contractor Purchase Program will sell to anyone with the right coupon code, easily found on Web deal sites. In contrast, Hewlett-Packard's Employee Discount Program site requires log-in credentials.

Lenovo is generous with its friends-and-family deals, too. "Anyone I give my information to can use the program," company spokesperson Aimee Foskie says. Dell imposes few, if any limits on its small-business bargains.

To find vendor deals that target students, small businesses, affiliates, or other special groups, you can try running a Web search or inquiring at school or work. Or browse vendors' sites: Apple, for instance, recently offered an appealing back-to-school special package for college-bound students: a free iPod (a value of up to $299) plus up to $100 off the regular price of a computer and a printer. The Apple deal is available only to college students, faculty, administrators, and staff members, but parents can get the deal on behalf of their kids.

Is This Code for Me?

If you come across a code, shopping mavens say, you should feel free to use it--regardless of whether it's intended for just anyone. A contractor's discount if you aren't a contractor? An education discount if you aren't a student? All of these are fair game, they say--if you can find the bargain and the seller doesn't object.

"If the store doesn't create a barrier, like ask for your student ID, I don't see why you wouldn't take the discount," says Daniel de Grandpre, CEO of Scott Kluth, president and founder of CouponCabin, another popular deal site, concurs: "If you find a code out there, go for it. Nine times out of ten the merchant's not going to come back to you and say, 'This wasn't intended for you.'"

Vendors' policies vary in this area, but in general they appear to be relatively blas? about granting access to friend/family, contractor, and affiliate discounts, and relatively stringent in checking qualifications for educational deals. With a code for Lenovo's contractor site, I was able to configure a ThinkStation D10 workstation for $2104, versus $2475 on Lenovo's regular site. And at Dell's Employees and Affiliates store, I found an Inspiron 1525 laptop for $685, or $64 off the regular discounted price. "Targeted coupons are not tied to any person, so if they are shared it is not a problem," Dell spokesman Jay Pinker wrote in an e-mail message.

On the other hand, to get an educational discount from Dell, you may have to prove that you're a student or an educator. And people who sign up for HP's Academic Purchasing Program (APP) must affirm that they are eligible for the discounts. HP may check a customer's credentials and cancel an order if it detects fraudulent activity, HP spokesperson Amy Smith says.

You might also run into qualification problems if you try to purchase software meant for students and faculty. "You're using software you don't have the right to use, so technically it's the same as piracy," de Grandpre says. (Microsoft has no objection to home users' buying its Office Home and Student 2007 suite, but only if they aren't running a business at home.)

Vendors change coupon codes often, a maddening fact of life for bargain hunters. "Expired coupons are the largest complaint, that I know of, from Internet shoppers," says Kluth. "It's extremely frustrating." To verify coupons, CouponCabin places test orders using them: "We post the last test date with the coupon, and typically test each offer at least twice a week."

Smart shoppers must act fast. Susan Kahler of Jefferson, Arkansas, scans the user forums at FatWallet 10 to 12 times a day in search of hot deals. "If something comes up, you just can't pass it up," says Kahler, a marketing professional who lives 45 minutes from Little Rock--too far away to take advantage of the big-box discounters there. "With FatWallet, if somebody finds a deal in California, in two minutes everybody from coast to coast knows about it."

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