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HOUSTON Many consumers swear they re the secret to getting great bargains, but while online social coupons promise a dream deal, the KHOU 11 News I-Team found you could end up with nothing.

Take the case of high school teacher Syleta Harkins. Five dollars is usually the max for a car wash, but one day in her inbox came an offer from the website BuyWithMe.

I love a good deal, and it was for a car detailing and it was a great deal, Harkins said.

For $39, the company Jamie Staggs Mobile Auto Detailing would come right to her door.

Harkins: And I made the decision to go ahead and bite.

I-Team: And you got bitten.

Harkins: I got bitten.

She had paid the website, and made an appointment, but then:

Harkins: No one showed up.

I-Team: And you re thinking?

Harkins: I ve been had.

They re the pitfalls of the social coupon craze. At the Houston Better Business Bureau, consumer complaints are pouring in.

I think you ve got companies that have bitten off more than they can chew, said BBB investigator Monica Russo. It s bringing in lots of business but they just can t keep up.

But Russo said social coupon sites also can attract those just out to make a buck.

They ll offer multiple deals on multiple sites, and then they ll change names as soon as one business gets too many complaints, Russo said.

For consumer Mary Chen, she wasn t bitten just once.

Twice, by two different companies, Chen said.

That included Maids Maids Maids, which advertised a housecleaning deal on the site LivingSocial.com.

Chen said the first appointment available was two months away, and when that day finally came, Chen said she was let down.

They didn t show up, and I was more mad and frustrated than anything, Chen said.

She was frustrated because she had taken off from work and ended up wasting an entire day.

And ended up with nothing to show for it, she said.

It s not the only maid service with a bad track record.

Ready to Clean Maids also has an F rating with the Better Business Bureau. Consumers complained of no-shows, no returned calls, and no bathroom cleaning when someone actually did show.

The BBB said Ready to Clean never answered a single customer complaint.

It just tells us that, in all likelihood, this is not a trustworthy company to do business with, Russo said.

The I-Team left repeated messages with all the merchants in our story, but did not hear back from anyone as of air time.

So how do you protect yourself?

Research is key. The Better Business Bureau recommends checking for complaints online. But if a company doesn t have any consumer reviews, you may want to consider going with only established businesses, not just start-ups.

If a company only communicates by e-mail not by phone that can be a red flag.

And the BBB also recommends asking the coupon site how many vouchers were part of the deal. For example, if a merchant sold a thousand spa packages or house-cleanings, it may take months to get an appointment.

As for consumers Syleta Harkins and Mary Chen, both were made whole in the end.  LivingSocial.com gave a full refund on the house-cleaning, and BuywithMe arranged a car-detailing from another merchant.

If you have a tip, e-mail me at jrogalski@khou.com. I m also on Facebook and Twitter @jrogalskikhou. Or give me a call at 713-284-8774.

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