Fake coupons have become more prevalent as more and more companies offer discounts and deals online -- but how do you tell the difference between the fakes and the real things?

Dangers of fake online coupons

In the best case scenario, you just don't get the discount. But in the worst case, clicking on a fake coupon could leave you with malware on your device -- potentially giving scammers access to your personal information and any account or other information stored in that device.

And this is the case with pretty much anything you do online these days. Paying close attention to the types of links you click on in emails and on social media is crucial to protecting your information and your safety.

So to avoid both the annoyance and potential dangers that stem from fake coupons, here are some tips to help you spot them.

5 tips to spot fake coupons

1. Use your gut

Seriously. When you take a moment to think and realize there's something kind of "off" about something, it usually triggers a common sense hesitation, right?

Well, just like most things in life, that may be easier said than done -- especially when you're already thinking about how much you could buy with that incredible deal of 50% off everything at Target or Kroger just for liking their Facebook page. And it doesn't mean that those great deals aren't out there, but before you click on any "incredible" offer, at least take a few moments to think about the probability that an offer that good could exist in real life.

One example is a fake Target coupon offering 50% off anything that was circulating on Facebook recently.

Read more: Apple email scam is stealing people's banking information

2. If it says "free" -- it probably isn't

Coupons for free items do exist, but they're usually for new and/or small products.

3. Check the expiration date

Unlike gift cards, coupons can still have expiration dates -- and most do. So if you see a great coupon that has no expiration date, that's a red flag.

If it does have one, make sure to look at it carefully. One glance at a coupon that expires on 2/30/16 might be enough to convince you that it's fine to click on -- but once take a moment to think -- Wait a minute...

Also, coupons for free items typically expire sooner rather than later. So if it doesn't expire until 2020, it's probably a fake.

Read more: Beware of these 3 Facebook scams

4. Check the source 

If an online coupon doesn't come directly from the company's website or a legitimate coupon site like Savings.com, then don't click on it! 

Here are a couple of ways to identity a legitimate source:

  • If it says it's directly from the company, go to the company's website directly to check.
     
  • Search for reviews of any source you don't recognize and/or check with the Better Business Bureau online here.
     
  • If the coupon is sent via email, it's important to verify the source. Scammers can make the source of a fake email look legitimate, but if you hover your mouse over the link in the email, you can see the real destination on the lower left corner of your email screen. And if the destination of the link looks a little wonky, don't click on it!

Read more: Top 10 scams of 2015 and how to avoid them

5. Check the CIC

The Coupon Information Center has a blacklist of known counterfeit coupons. Check the list here for anything you may be uncertain about.

Important note: While the CIC is a great resource, it may not pick up fake coupons as quickly as they are being circulated on social media and via email. So if a coupon you see isn't on that list, it doesn't necessarily mean it's real. The CIC list is also a great way to familiarize yourself with the types of fake offers out there, in order to spot similar ones in the future.

How to protect yourself from similar online scams

Email scams are nothing new, but as scammers continue to evolve and catch people off guard, it's always a good idea to familiarize yourself with the best ways to spot and avoid potential fraudulent emails:

  • Ignore the urgency: Make sure you can verify the legitimacy of the offer before handing over any personal information. Scams will often try to get you to act before thinking twice by creating a sense of urgency. Don't fall for it! 
  • Confirm the contact information: Check to see if you can find a real address and/or phone number from the company, and then check to see if the address is in fact a real place. You can also check up on a company by doing an online search with the Better Business Bureau.
     
  • Make sure the payment process is done through a secure connection: Before you enter your credit card information, confirm that the URL starts with “https”—the “s” stands for “secure”—and has a lock icon in the browser bar.
     
  • Check for poor grammar and spelling: Both in the email and on the website. Typos and bad grammar are a big warning sign that it's a scam!