The foibles of online freebies

BY KATIE CINCOTTA
Last updated 05:00 23/10/2009

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Web windfalls abound but many come at a cost.

Ever heard the expression "Anything free is worth what you pay for it"? Sad, whining cynics, you might argue. Well, it turns out the killjoys could be on to something.

While nobody wants to spoil a good thing - especially in the era of frugality - exercising a little suspicion over something for nothing could spare you from suffering a serious case of Sucker's Syndrome. Common symptoms include nausea brought on by unwanted advertising, spam-induced fatigue and the distress and anxiety of a shock bill.

With the internet bursting at the seams with free email addresses, software, photo storage, blogs and more, it's easy to get swept away by the giveaways without weighing up the pros and cons.

A spokesperson for Australian consumer group Choice, Christopher Zinn, says while many freebies offer legitimate windfalls, others have nasty side-effects.

"The catches are that you might have to give up some of your information - your email address and details of who you are and how much you earn, which they can use and sell. Properly packaged, 100,000 names like that is a valuable commodity. But the cost to you is spam."

Mr Zinn says many free introductory services are often used as a lure to eventually convert people to a paid account.

"It's not to dismiss these things but you have to weigh up the costs of the hook. Telstra might give you BigPond free for six months but your total cost over time may well be greater because you didn't check out the alternatives and fell for the 'honeymoon' offer."

Texas-based Marc McDonald knows web freebies better than most. He launched thefreesite.com more than 12 years ago and now attracts 1 million visitors a month and 220,000 newsletter subscribers to his free-for-all portal.

Having watched the online freebie culture evolve for a decade, Mr McDonald says there are now more categories than ever, including the perennial favourite "free product samples" and the latest trend - phone freebies.

"The single hottest new freebie category I've seen over the past year has been freebies for mobile phones, including mobile phone software, ringtones, themes and games," he says. "It's hugely popular at the moment and shows no signs of abating."

But Mr Zinn warns that freebies for mobile phones can also be a huge trap and are designed deliberately to snare unsuspecting victims such as children.

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"Mobile premium services are the real villains - free wallpaper, free ringtones, free horoscopes," he says. "The first one may be free but after that, some of those SMS quizzes might be $6 a throw and you've been tricked into a subscription that's hard to get out of."

For mobile users caught out by a mobile premium service, Choice recommends texting "STOP" back to the number to ask them to desist. Telstra customers can also put a blanket ban on premium SMS, which is set to widen to other carriers.

To avoid the unwanted advances of spammers, Mr McDonald suggests freebie chasers set up a specific email address to use on online forms.

He also cautions bargain hunters to be alert to hidden costs such as postage and handling, which are often the flip side of daily deal sites such as 1saleaday.com.au.

Launched in August, a version of the popular US site introduced itself to Australia with two weeks of free daily products - including a A$200 portable media player.

Managing director Simon Mochkin admits gadget giveaways are part of their marketing push but the freebies are no fleeting ploy and will continue to make up 50 per cent of their stock.

"The reasons things are free is that we want to build trust in our customers," he says. "So the freebies aren't just to get people to the site; they're part of our brand and they will continue. The other bonus is that we're not talking about $5 stuff you get at the local Chinese discount store. Most of our items are worth $35-$40."

When it comes to getting a good deal on electrical goods, the internet has also gifted us with an exciting new research platform - the forum - where you can suss out products, performance and price with thousands of willing participants eager to relay their own personal experiences on anything from broadband plans to big-screen televisions.

Online technology forum Whirlpool is one of the biggest Australian sites for free tech advice and has more than 300,000 members contributing opinions across a million discussion threads.

Many of them say they no longer trust the opinion of the "bricks and mortar" retailer, preferring instead to seek counsel from fellow consumers with no agenda.

"I would much rather trust the opinion of other people who are using the product I'm interested in over someone who is getting paid commission to sell to me at the highest price possible," writes user "Converted", aka Allan Paine.

As serious tech heads, most Whirlpool members simply aren't satisfied with the level of knowledge and personal experience offered by in-store staff.

"Xang", who is part-time mobile phone salesman Ben Howland, says you can't beat people power for "free" commentary.

"The main difference in sourcing information online rather than through a sales rep is the reviewer has actually used or owned the product," he says. "Even if I know every spec and feature of a certain phone, there's nothing that beats owning it and using it every day - certainly a luxury that doesn't get afforded to retail staff."

Mr Howland says he reserves his best advice for tech-savvy customers who appreciate a lively, informed debate.

"With more knowledgable customers, it's a lot more fun to go over the pros and cons of each phone to find something that will really work for them.

"I have no hesitation in pointing out that the iPhone has a poor camera or that the [current] Windows Mobile interface is pretty terrible for finger navigation."

Of course, some buyers will always prefer live face-to-face interaction, especially if it's from a salesperson with as much character and experience as Australia's Roger Tyrrell.

The 59-year-old has been selling electric goods for 34 years, starting at his dad's Elsternwick store, Ken Max Traders. "From about the age of eight I was helping out in the shop and unloading trucks," he says.

After the sudden death of his father - who was robbed and murdered on a naval reunion trip to the Philippines - the 23-year-old couldn't keep the business afloat and decided to work for Retravision, where he's been ever since.

His colourful personality and straight-shooting advice has earned him a loyal clientele, with the Knox store selling at recession-defying levels.

"I've got two and three generations of people who come in here to see me," he says. "I think it's because I don't sell anything; I just advise people. If I don't know the answers, I'll go to someone who does know. I'm not going to give you bullshit."

Mr Tyrrell says some brands used to offer sales commissions of up to $10 an item but tighter trading conditions have all but phased out the practice. For him, the bonus never made much difference.

"I try to sell things I have confidence in," he says. "I certainly like our Aussie-made stuff. See, a lot of gear is just getting cheap and nasty. People used to come in and say, 'I had this for 30 years', now you're lucky if something lasts 10."

This sales veteran might be an exception to quick-draw schmoozers but Whirlpool users remain sceptical of the old guard. For them, it seems the internet now reigns supreme for tech talk that's fast, fair-minded and free.

HIGH FIVE

Five of the best freebies by category.

Anti-virus/spyware: AVG, avast! Home Edition, Microsoft Security Essentials, Ad-Aware Free, Trend Micro HouseCall.

Blogs: Blogger, WordPress, LiveJournal, BlogNow, Tumblr.

Music/podcasts: iTunes free single of the week, Last.fm, Grooveshark, Dr Karl's science show, TED talks.

Photo storage: Flickr, Picasa, Microsoft Mesh, Windows Live SkyDrive, Dropbox.

Email: Mailinator, Yahoo!, Gmail, FastMail, Hotmail.

- The Age

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