Fishing for Deals

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"Avoid Surveys Like Swine Flu"

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 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 what?"

"The four-days, three-nights vacation in Cancun."

"From where?"

"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.

Continued on page 3:  Rockin' in the Free World


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