Free Merchandise for Completing a Survey? Don't Count On It

You are searching for a hot item on the Internet, trying to find a good deal. Up pops an advertisement, offering the item for free. All you have to do is complete a survey, and the item is yours. And just in time for Christmas, or for your kid's birthday. Too good to be true?

Offers of "Free" Merchandise for Completing a Survey

When surfing the Web, it is common to encounter ads for services which promise you free merchandise for completing a survey. Sometimes the merchandise is of significant value - often consumer electronics goods such as video games, digital cameras, or even portable computers. These ads are quite enticing, and significant numbers of Internet users click them. But what they find at the sponsor's site is usually far from what they expect.

The "Bait and Switch

Typically, rather than finding a survey, you will find a list of product offers. The "survey" component involves page after page of lists of offers, and the question "does this offer interest you". If you click yes, you are asked to register for that offer, and are then returned to the lists of offers.

Some people feel an obligation to register for some of these offers, out of a misplaced sense of responsibility to the survey company. But whether or not you click yes, 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.

Unethical Partner Sites

If you read the fine print on the partner sites, you are likely to be surprised. Granted, some of the partners are very open about the expectation if you sign up with their services. Get three CD's free, or even "fine silk neckties", but buy five more at "regular price" over the next two years. You get a service at what seems like a great price, but only because you are actually buying a bulk service package of 100. Many others companies are anything but ethical, burying subscription terms in their "terms of service". 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.

And another:

I registered to receive "free" tooth whitening strips. I found the subscription information buried in the terms of service - which said I could cancel the subscription at any time - so I sent an immediate cancellation of the subscription service. I received a reply back from the company indicating that they had cancelled my "free" whitening strips as well. They weren't interested in shipping the promised "free sample" to me unless I was potentially on the hook for their $50/month "subscription service". That is, anybody who found the ugly truth behind their offers was automatically excluded as a customer.

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? You will most likely encounter excuse after excuse, and delay after delay. Typically, after completing the required number of registrations, you will be directed to an "incentive rewards center" where you will learn that the survey company supposedly has not yet heard back from their partners.

You may have a mountain of merchandise from your purchases through their partner links, but 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 take weeks or months before that happens - and additional weeks or months after that time before you will receive your "free" merchandise.

Obviously, many people reach a point of frustration at which time they give up, and these companies and their affiliates, as they say, laugh all the way to the bank.

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:

Nobody Is Going To Give You Valuable Merchandise For Free

The cliché is, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Well, there's also no such thing as a free iPad, a free digital camera, or a free portable computer. Legitimate survey companies will likely require hours of work from you before they will offer you a significant incentive.

Illegitimate survey companies will require you to participate in a significant number of deals with their "partners" which they anticipate will ultimately cost you a lot of money or will otherwise generate a considerable commission.

"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 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 "Survey" Consists of Product Pitches, It's Actually A Sales Pitch

A true survey seeks to find out consumer information for the benefit of a particular client, or which can be compiled into reports which can be sold to a variety of clients. A "survey" which consists of nothing but product pitches, asking if they appeal to you, has only one purpose: to sell you those products. This is the online equivalent of the "free vacation" where you are hounded from the moment you arrive to purchase a time share.

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 "survey" 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?

Copyright © 2004 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.