Fishing for Deals

I spent hours on the Internet tracking offers for free stuff. And I found out what you can -- and can't get when you take the bait.
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Operation Free Stuff

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.

Continued on page 2:  "Avoid Surveys Like Swine Flu"


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