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Everyone has seen them: "Free Phone Card!" "Free Laptop Computer!" "Free $10,000 Home Makeover!" For years I assumed those online offers were come-ons or yielded, at best, teeny-tiny samples of products you didn't want anyway ("Free Berry-Flavored Laxative"). But then I heard from a friend that the wife of another friend's brother somehow landed a free Cancun vacation. How? By trawling the Internet for sweepstakes and giveaways.
Suddenly I was forced to reconsider my policy. Now that a real live person, a woman I actually knew (kind of) had scored so big (supposedly), I told myself: I am missing out.
A simple Google search for "free stuff online" launched me into a strange subculture where fanatics hunt down freebies and then collect the offers in one place. Suddenly -- like any red-blooded American taken with the idea of something for nothing -- I wanted my piece of the action. I hesitated the first time I typed my mailing address (for a one-ounce bottle of body wash), but that momentary quandary proved to be my initiation into Operation Free Stuff, aka OFS. Forced to learn OFS on the fly, I picked up some valuable lessons along the way.
After the body wash I signed up to get a fabric-softener three-pack, a shower gel for men, an "I Love Bacteria" T-shirt (because a person can never have too many "I Love Bacteria" T-shirts), and a sample of Lemonheads, which I was promptly informed had "sold out."
"Sold out?" I screamed at my computer. It was as if I had just been told that I was no longer eligible to breathe air. I felt defeated. Then angry. Then stupid for feeling defeated and angry. Then angry again.
Free Advice: Check Google Reader at least twice a day so you don't miss out on the good stuff, because there are evidently a whole lot of people out there gunning for Lemonheads. OFS requires vigilance and speed. OFS is war.
A few days later (after signing up for travel toothpastes and a mini-box of detergent), I spied the word "sweepstakes" attached to an offer for lip gloss. I felt wary but was soon clicking away, only to find myself trapped in an endless chain of surveys. I'd finish one and there'd be another. Then another. And another. ("Do you have health insurance?" "Need diet advice?" "Are you constipated?") Each time I believed with all my heart the lip-gloss sign-up would be on the next page. But there was no lip gloss in sight and no way out. Panicked, I shut down my computer.
Free Advice: Offers involving the words "sweepstakes" or "survey" should be avoided like swine flu.
Despite the distraction of samples, and more samples, I kept my eye on the big prize: Cancun. Sadly, the totally awesome offers are not aggregated on a special Web site of "Totally Awesome Offers That Everyone and Their Sister-in-Law Want." According to the veteran freebie-trackers I consulted, they're often buried amid the clutter in your inbox, nearly invisible to all but the sharp-eyed. Thus, you have to pay attention to every single offer in order to snag the gems. An ordinary day might bring a one-serving size of breakfast cereal in the morning, a shampoo sample at lunchtime, a coupon for a complimentary cup of coffee in the afternoon, a free trip to Bali at dinner time, followed by an after-dinner pack of bubble gum.
Free Advice: I wasn't about to miss that free trip to Bali. I began studying my inbox with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar. In OFS, you snooze, you lose.
I began sprinting for the mail every afternoon as if my mailman were Hugh Jackman. And, every afternoon, I was crushed. The "six to eight weeks for delivery" were ruthless. I needed proof that OFS wasn't wasting my time, because it was taking up a ridiculous amount of it. One weekend I was away from my computer for two days. When I logged in on Monday, there were 151 new offers in my Google Reader and 15 messages in my Gmail account. It took an hour just to filter through them.
Halfway through those 151 offers I came across the best freebie I'd seen in my three weeks of hunting: a pack of eco-friendly art supplies, offered by a random blogger. I had to comment on the blog, explain why I wanted the supplies, then wait while the blogger read the comments and chose which supplicant was most worthy. I typed my pitch: "My 3- and 5-year-old daughters love drawing and being green. I'd like them to see the two work hand-in-hand." I hit "enter," then scanned through the comments -- there were hundreds -- to make sure mine posted. It did, directly below this one: "I work at a vocational center for at-risk kids and we have no budget for art supplies."
Free Advice: When trying to get picked for a giveaway, have a good reason you deserve to be chosen.
Exactly 26 days after first typing in my address, the body wash came in the mail. My first freebie! It felt like Christmas morning! I looked at the box, wondering, Why waste so much cardboard for such a tiny bottle? But I ignored my tree-hugger instincts. Because, finally, the soap was mine. Mine.
Except it wasn't. The box was empty.
Free Advice: There's simply no crying in OFS.
Empty boxes turned out to be the exception. The next day I got three teeth-whitening strips, and from then on the freebies rolled in: a protein bar, the men's body wash, the fabric-softener sheets, one paper towel, four cups' worth of ground coffee, and the thinnest panty liner I've ever seen. With resolve renewed (and my coupon box full since every sample came with a coupon to use when buying the grown-up size), the offers seemed suddenly cooler, more desirable: a cleanser that removed ink, organic bug spray, an "age-defying" eye cream, vegetable seeds!
Images of planting my first-ever garden with the kids played in my brain as I clicked through to the "Need Seeds" page on dinnergarden.org. I filled in the form and hit "submit." A confirmation page appeared with this message: "We are extremely backlogged in our requests." The message went on to say, "We rely on donations to support our mission to end hunger in the United States." Donations? End hunger? Only then did I check out the site -- a nonprofit offering seeds to the poor so they could grow vegetables to feed their kids. And there I was, so high on getting something for free -- something I didn't need -- that I hadn't done even the most minimal due diligence. Instead of asking for a freebie I should have been writing a check.
Free Advice: Once you submit your info, you can't take it back, even if you've rethought the whole thing.
If I were a better person I would have quit then and there. But I just. Couldn't. Stop.
And, on Day 53, my grail appeared: "Free Cancun Vacation!" Four days, three nights. A resort and spa. I clicked the link and was told to "call RIGHT NOW to claim your free vacation!" I had only three minutes. How did I know? Because there was a clock counting down on the screen. I dialed. I was put on hold. The clock ticked: Ten seconds. Three seconds. Two. One. Crap, I thought. Like a miracle (or a sign that I should've hung up on the spot), the clock reset. Finally, a voice came on the line. "I'm calling about the free trip to Cancun," I said brightly.
"The four-days, three-nights vacation in Cancun."
"I don't know. I just clicked a link," I said. This was weird. Did she handle so many giveaways that she was confused? Was this a scam? Was I the most gullible person on the Internet?
"Call this number," she told me, and rattled off some digits.
I called and got voice mail. The recording did not say, "For the Cancun giveaway, leave your number." It said, "You've reached the desk of...."
I wasn't sure if I should feel gratified that I'd connected (almost) to a real person with a real name or if I should fear that, within minutes, my phone would be tapped by Osama bin Laden.
Free Advice: If asked for your number, make something up.
Me? I left my real number. How else would I get to the real Cancun? And I waited. One day. Two days. Three. A week.
And, with that, I was done.
I had sent away for 82 free offers. I had received 24.
There were about 7 million things more worth doing during the 40 minutes a day I spent looking at offers, the 30 minutes it took to fill out online forms, and the uncountable hours I squandered picturing myself on a beach sipping pina coladas. Plus I was still waiting for items that would never arrive: a first-aid kit, a spring-cleaning kit, a pen, an autographed Taylor Swift poster, and the "I Love Bacteria" T-shirt.
Not that I hadn't scored useful things. Without the free sample I would never have known about the truly long-lasting flavor of a new chewing gum. I wouldn't have bought it in the checkout line; I wouldn't have even noticed it. But how many shampoo samples does one woman really need? I'd buy shampoo at Costco, in bulk, and feel frugal by using a coupon. It wouldn't be free. But it would feel free-ish.
Three weeks after I shut down OFS the phone rang. A woman whose name I couldn't make out from a company that sounded like Youaresuchasucker asked if I wanted to buy a vacation package in Cancun. "Does this have anything to do with the free offer?" I inquired. She said yes -- all I had to do was buy a three-day vacation and I'd get four more days gratis.
I explained that I was only interested in the gratis part. She said nothing. Then she hung up.
In the end, exploring the depth and breadth of the freebie subculture wasn't really my thing. But if it's yours, here are the basics.
1. Create a dedicated e-mail address. To avoid polluting your regular inbox with spam concerning the $1.5 million you'll inherit from a long lost Slovenian relative if you just send your checking account number, go to google.com, click Gmail in the toolbar at the top of the page, then "Create an Account."
2. Do a search for "free stuff online." You'll find hundreds of sites that collect all of the freebies being offered on a particular day and make them available to the world at large.
3. Limit yourself. Don't follow too many of these sites because the same offers appear on all of them. But totallyfreestuff.com, which I found best in terms of collecting the most (and most interesting) offers and which contains no photos, wordy descriptions, or personal endorsements about why the product is so terrific, is worth checking out. Other good sites: gofreebies.com, moneysavingmom.com, and freemania.net.
4. Become a subscriber. Most sites give you this option through a button on the home page. The subscription is an RSS feed, which sends the offers the site collects directly to you, so you just need to log on to Google to see what's brewing instead of constantly checking the site itself. The best place to send the feed is to your Google Reader, which comes (yup) free with your Gmail. Click "Reader" in the toolbar at the top of your Gmail inbox.
5. Check your feed at least twice a day. Some sites post multiple offers a day, and if you don't act fast the cool ones "sell" out. Also, the offers pile up and won't go away until you've read them. Fortunately, Google Reader has a "Mark All As Read" option for lazy days.
6. Click to the freebie. Each offer from the site will have a hotlink to the actual offer, where you must fill in your home address and Gmail address. If it asks for a phone number, make one up.
7. Keep a log. Note the offers you signed up for and when, then check them off when the products arrive. This provides evidence that all your time and effort have managed to produce something.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2010.