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Free Merchandise For Being A Product Tester? Probably Not.

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You are searching the internet for a cool new product, and come across an advertisement telling you that you can get it for free - all you have to do is sign up as a product tester. That sounds pretty good, right? But if you try to sign up, your experience is likely to be dissapointing.

Offers of "Free" Merchandise to Product Testers

It is not unusual for web surfers, particularly those searching for expensive consumer items, to come across ads promising them the items for free if they sign up as a "product tester". Usually the merchandise is quite valuable, including computers, cameras, video games, and MP3 players. But when people try to sign up as product testers, they usually find out that the company running the ad has something very different in mind - getting them to purchase goods and services, often at high prices.

The "Bait and Switch"

When people follow the ads to become product testers, they are usually asked to take a "survey", or perhaps they are taken directly to a list of offers that they must select from in order to qualify to test products. The "survey" consists of page after page of lists of "offers" for you to purchase goods or services. But typically, with or without a "survey" you end up at the same destination: a series of pages where you are instructed to register with a minimum number of "partner" sites, typically with the requirement that you make a purchase from those partners or register for a loan or credit card. The partner sites are usually spread over three or more pages, with the requirement that you register for a certain number of offers from each page. One person described the experience:

After I signed up for offers on the first two pages, I ended up on a third page where I had to select two offers. There weren't many offers on the page, and all of them were very expensive. For example, I could apply for a credit card which carried a $149 annual fee. I could also sign up for DirecTV, at a considerable fee. They obviously knew that a lot of people would not qualify for these offers, even if they were interested. They also obviously knew that if they put this type of offer up front, nobody would sign up at all - it would be cheaper to just buy the merchandise you were supposedly going to get for free. I had already signed up for offers on the prior two pages, so for me it was a complete rip-off.

Unethical Partner Sites

Things often get worse when you go to a partner site to sign up for an offer. Some of the partners provide clear information about the expectation if you sign up with their services: Get three DVD's for free, or even three "fine silk neckties", but buy five more at "regular price" over the next two years. However, others bury subscription terms in their "terms of service", and it is difficult to imagine that they don't intend to cheat people who believe they are signing up for a "free" sample item. Here's one person's description of their experience,

I signed up to receive "free" vitamins, paying a small amount of money for "postage and handling. I thought I read everything on the site pretty well before I signed up. But after I received my initial shipment, I received a second shipment of vitamins, and found that they had charged $50 to my credit card for that shipment. When I objected, they said that it was in their "terms of service" that I had to cancel within fourteen days of my subscription, or they would automatically ship a month's supply of vitamins - and that it was also within the terms of service that I could not return shipments which occurred prior to my cancellation. In other words, because they hid this requirement in a very long document which they displayed in a tiny text window, I was stuck paying $50 for at most $5 worth of vitamins, and I couldn't return them or get any help from my credit card company.

Some people have reported that their efforts to resign from these subscription services were ignored, until after they received (and were charged for) additional shipments of merchandise.

One Excuse After Another

What happens if you complete the requisite number of registrations to become a "product tester" and get your "free" merchandise? You will most likely encounter nothing but excuses and delays.

Typically, after completing the required number of registrations, you will be directed to an "incentive rewards center" where you will learn that the "product testing" company supposedly has not yet heard back from their partners. Even though the purchases you made are already charged to your credit card, the company informs you that you won't be eligible for the promised reward because the partners supposedly haven't confirmed that you completed the registration forms. And you are told that it may be weeks or months before that happens - and additional weeks or months after that time before you will receive the"free" merchandise you are supposedly going to test.

At various points in this process, many people give up and walk away, even though they have signed up for various "offers". These companies and their "partners" simply pocket the money.

Protecting Yourself

If you keep the following in mind, you will be in a better position to assess this type of "free" offer, and to protect yourself from unethical partner sites:

  • Companies Aren't Really Looking For Random Product Testers - While there are legitimate product and consumer research firms, some of whom do business online and some of whom in fact do give away test merchandise, they don't solicit random individuals with specific promises of valuable gifts. They obtain information about individual consumers, and offer them the opportunity to complete surveys, to engage in focus groups, or to test merchandise based upon the demographic they fit and the needs of their clients. Compensation can be quite good, but is typically far short of the windfalls offered in the ads - for example, for a $500 gift card, you could expect to spend ten to twenty hours participating in their surveys and studies. And the legitimate companies won't try to sell you products from their "partner" sites - if you see such offers, you can be sure up front that the goal is to sell you merchandise, not to have you test it.

  • "Free Samples" Offered By Partner Sites Come With Strings - It may seem to be relatively cheap and easy to register for a "free sample" item through a partner site, upon being told "you pay only for shipping". Sure, the shipping price is excessive, but what's $6 or $7 when you're going to become a "product tester" and get an expensive gift after you sign up for three or four offers, right? But you should expect that there is a very expensive subscription service associated with the "free sample", and if you don't read the terms of service carefully you can expect to be charged $50 or $100 before you even notice what is happening - with no opportunity for refund.

  • If The "Questionnaire" You Must Complete To Qualify As A Product Tester Consists of Product Pitches, It's Actually A Sales Pitch - If a company is legitimately interested in seeking product testers, it will be interested to know facts about you, your product preferences, your knowledge of competing products, your experience with similar products, or other relevant information about you and how you fit into their target demographic. If instead your test for qualification consists of nothing but product pitches, the site's interest is in selling you merchandise, not giving it to you.

  • Keep Your Eyes Open - If you have to sign up for products to complete the deal, the site's sponsors expect that you will ultimately pay them hundreds or thousands of dollars more than the value of the "free gift" you will supposedly receive. The only guarantees are that the "partner" sites will collect their fees, and the "product testing" company will collect its commissions. There is a substantial chance that you will either give up part way through the "survey", perhaps after signing up for some offers, or will simply be cheated by these companies such that you do not receive your gift. After all, that's far more profitable for them than keeping their promise to you - and what are you really going to do about it?