Something for nothing?

On freebie sites you can't always get what you want, but if you try real hard you just might get something free.

Published December 17, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

I've always been a sucker for freebies. When I was 6, I remember negotiating over the phone with a volunteer for a public-television pledge drive; I was determined to pledge the lowest amount possible and still get the "Big Bird Busy Book" -- "free." More recently I have fallen for the old 12 CDs for a penny and four books for a buck, and once, I even bought a special super-absorbent towel which was supposed to cut hair-drying time in half, mostly because it came with a free set of perfume samples. Did it occur to me, as I was ordering this towel, that I have really short hair and don't wear perfume? No -- I was mesmerized by that word. Your free gift! Free with purchase! It's freeeeeee!

Now there's a cornucopia of free stuff I can get without even leaving my desk. As the Cool Freebies site puts it: "One of the best things about the World Wide Web is the availability of cool free stuff. There are more freebies out there than most of us will ever find." With a little work -- and a lot of luck -- you could lay your hands on a free DVD player or even free Pokimon cards.

There are tons of Web sites devoted to nothing more than helping me find great giveaways. With their help I set off to find what I could really get for nothing online. Of course, almost no one is giving stuff away without expecting something in return; I would have to fork over time and information about myself: my age, income, weird facts like whether I own a cat or how many movies I see in a month. Luckily, my electronic persona, Olivia Lee, doesn't mind divulging a bit of personal info. In fact, she's downright casual about giving her e-mail address out. She's got an account at a discount ISP; I figure that makes her a bit more respectable than a persona whose identity is confined to a free e-mail account.

As a persona and not a person, Olivia is not the least bit embarrassed about ordering samples of facial hair remover, say, or lingerie catalogues. She doesn't care if every marketer in the country knows how much money she makes and what she does for a living. I enter Olivia's name, e-mail address and other data for the AutoFill feature in my browser, Internet Explorer 4.5 for the Mac. AutoFill is the main reason I switched from Netscape to IE -- you just hit a button and AutoFill plugs your data into online forms, AKA requests for freebies.

Some freebies require a self-addressed stamped envelope to send me coupons or samples. So, I sought out free postage to start with -- and found it at Postage4Free, which gives out envelopes stamped with advertisements as well as stamps. I ordered some, but the envelopes never showed up and I had to buy a book of stamps.

To get into the spirit of the chase, I started my freebie pursuit at LuckySurf, a lottery-like site, where you get a free chance to win $1 million by picking seven numbers. I close my eyes for true randomness and click seven times. Then, because I have to click on an ad banner to "validate" my numbers, I click on the MyPoints ad.

MyPoints is like frequent flier miles for surfing; it awards points for buying stuff and reading special offers online. I'm aiming for a worthwhile prize: a free box of chocolates. After a half-hour of filling out the MyPoints survey -- What is the birth year and gender of each of my children under 18? How many people does my company employ? How many round-trip flights I have taken in the last 12 months? -- I have 150 points. I need 500 for the chocolates. But wait, the fine print tells me that new MyPoints members need to accumulate 1,000 points before redeeming any prizes. Argh. Time to seek out some less costly freebies.

I go to FreeShop, "your source for thousands of free and trial offers, stuff you actually want from brands you love." Yes! Jackpot! Unfortunately, the site turns out to be mostly a source of free catalogues. There are also a few things which clearly do not pass my freebie litmus test, like "Try the new 8-lb. Oreck XL Vacuum risk-free for 30 days!" and "MoverQuote: Free Moving Quotes."

I find better freebies through FreeShop's links to other free stuff on the Web: a Clairol Herbal Essences Facial Care sample, a free Tampax tampon, a Candy Store candy sample. Oooh, I see that Urban Decay is offering a free gift; I'd love some free hipster makeup. But no, the company is giving away coasters. Coasters?

I move on to Rebates are a little more work than plain old giveaways, but as the saying goes, there's no free lunch. At CyberRebate, many of the products are free after rebate -- except for a $3.99 shipping and handling fee. The problem is, most of the stuff I wouldn't want if you paid me to take it. Hideous "Star Wars" souvenirs? (They didn't sell for a reason.) I am momentarily tempted to order a resinous sculpture of the Rancor monster, or a mug shaped like the head of a drooling Gamorrhean guard, and have it sent to a friend as a joke.

Eventually, I find an RCA portable radio and cassette player. CyberRebates says it retails for $52.50 (comparison shopping site MySimon found the same model for $9.99), but that I can have it free if I'm willing to pay for it and wait for the rebate. So I agree to be charged $56.49 (the retail price plus shipping). However, after I get my radio and fill out the rebate forms, I read the small print and find out that my rebate is going to take 10 to 14 weeks to process. I fire off an e-mail to Sammy, a CyberRebates customer-service person, to ask if CyberRebates makes its money by collecting interest on pending rebates. He doesn't write back.

To cut faster to the chase, I hit's freebie site, where editor Lee Seats picks what he thinks are the best freebies and weeds out the iffy ones. I send a quick e-mail asking him for tips of the free trade. Seats' favorite is free long-distance service, and he recommends's FreeWay. "I use it heavily, especially when traveling," he writes. "It sure beats using expensive phone cards or paying hotel long-distance rates."

That sounds good, but I want something that I can actually hold on to. On's freebies message board, another user has posted the first really great freebie I've seen., an e-commerce site for kids' stuff, has an introductory offer for new customers: a free CD or video -- you just pay shipping and handling. I've always wanted to see "Creature Comforts," an Academy-Award winning short animation by Nick Park, the guy who created Wallace & Gromit. Bingo!

Later, I become obsessed with getting a free Jelly Belly sample. You have to fill out a survey to get jellybeans. The only hitch is, only 500 people a day can take the survey, which goes up at a random hour so that you have to keep checking back. I keep trying and trying -- and realize this is just like gambling. But eventually, I win!

The good, the bad, and the totally random

Many freebie offers make me feel the same way I do at tax time, when you get deductions if you are blind or have a failed farm. I feel kind of relieved that I don't have those things to write off. So it's nice to be able to say thanks, but no thanks, to the free hair transplant video and free sample of constipation relief.

On the other hand, there are really wacky things out there that are too interesting not to send for -- like Llamalizer. Llamalizer is described as "an organic fertilizer ... virtually odor-free." The phrase "organic fertilizer" is obviously a euphemism for dried llama shit, but still, this is a freebie I want. Now I just need something to fertilize, so I search for seeds on's freebie site and find free wildflower seeds. Next, I request a free medal from the Association of the Miraculous Medal, which considers the medal a symbol of devotion to Mary. I'm not Catholic, but I have catholic tastes in jewelry. And who wouldn't want to invite miracles into their life?

I send for these freebies knowing that the companies giving stuff away will want to subject me to avalanches of marketing in return. As a freebies junkie, I'm resigned to lots of nosy questions: What is your age range? Are you planning on having a baby in the next year? But one questionnaire, for a sample of Olbas medicinal oil, is more than nosy. It asks me whether I'd like to receive a weekly newsletter, and tacks this on at the end: "Note: You must agree to subscribe to the newsletter to receive the free sample." Yowza. Now there's a question with one right answer. A month later the fragments of a smashed Olbas "pastille" cough drop arrived, but I never did get the newsletter. (I think that might be the first miracle performed by my medal.)

In fact, I did not end up getting the torrents of spam I feared, only e-mail that I had agreed to receive. But in my freebie site travels, I also didn't get much in the way of stuff I really wanted. I would have starved waiting for the handful of jellybeans to show up. After several days of hunting down freebies, I've come to the conclusion that if you need a goofy gift for a white elephant exchange, or are bored with your current screen saver, the Web is a great place to get it for free. Otherwise, think of trawling for freebies as a form of entertainment -- like trying to grab a stuffed Wile E. Coyote with that large mechanical claw in the arcade -- you don't really need or want it, but it's fun to try!

By Lydia Lee

Lydia Lee is a San Francisco writer


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