A free-for-all?

When a friend from high school introduced junior Brian Weiss to the Web site freeipods.com, he was doubtful about being able to score free stuff.

“I said that there was no way this could work. I was skeptical of this for years,” Weiss said. “I decided I wanted to prove myself wrong, to see if I could prove their claims true or false.”

Weiss finally gave into his friend’s request to sign up as a referral and pursued his own free iPod. Thirty-one days later, Weiss was rocking out on a new 20-gigabyte music player.

Now, Weiss is working to help himself and others get more free products through Internet offers. Since earning his first free prize, Weiss has gone on to create a Web site titled “Brian’s Guide to Getting Free (Stuff)” at www.geocities.com/brianw14/. Weiss said he has assisted friends in getting their own free iPods through tips on the site and advice on how to advertise. Weiss is waiting for two credit card applications to clear before he is eligible for a free flat-screen television.

Peter Martin, co-founder of Gratis Internet, which owns freeipods.com, said “amazing” how dedicated some people are to acquiring free products, and said sites such as Weiss’ are “a really good method for smart enough people to tap into their own peer group.”

To earn a free device, one must first register with a site that offers the desired product. Each product requires the participant to refer a certain number of people to sign up for offers from various companies. A video gaming system costs four referrals, an iPod five and a flat screen television eight.

People must sign up for offers through the participants’ customized Web links. Offers include credit cards, Blockbuster subscriptions, music and book subscriptions and teeth whitening. Weiss said he and fellow free-product seekers have a tough sell with people skeptical about where their information and credit card numbers are sent.

Freshman Uptin Saiidi said his friends pressured him into signing up for the program, but he ultimately declined.

“I felt like I was being pressured, you know. They are your friends and you want to support them, but at the same time you don’t want to get involved in a scam,” Saiidi said. “It’s not annoying, you just don’t want to be in a weird position.”

In February, Gratis Internet, the D.C.-based company that owns freeipods.com, was cited with violating proper privacy protection guidelines, The Associated Press reported. TRUSTe, a company that guarantees Internet privacy for businesses, ended its relationship with Gratis and told the company it could no longer display the industry’s seal that indicates a site is following privacy guidelines.

Martin, the co-founder of Gratis, said his company is working to get re-certified and that it has a solid reputation, as illustrated by thousands of pleased customers.

“I would tell any consumer… look for our Internet reputation, what other people are saying,” Martin said. “We feel really strongly that we have a positive reputation. We wouldn’t be as successful as we are without a positive buzz.”

To get people to sign up for his offers, Weiss used ads placed on his instant messenger profile and joined random www.thefacebook.com groups. After joining the groups, he spammed members with unsolicited messages. “Bombarding,” he acknowledges, has made him some enemies and resulted in nasty messages.

“They would be vocal about me spamming them, but in truth, I was offering them a $400 dollar product for free,” Weiss added.

Gratis runs more than a dozen sites advertising offers of merchandise ranging from free condoms to free computers at www.gratisnetwork.com. Martin said his company has delivered 13,000 iPods of the 20-gigabyte variety to consumers.

Gratis was founded in 2000, and freeipods.com was created in 2004. The company took in $4.9 million in revenue in 2003, a statement released in October said. Martin declined to give 2004 figures but said revenue has increased. He described Gratis’ success as “astounding, but not necessarily surprising.”

The Gratis model is a twist on giving away free T-shirts with a credit card or a free tote bag with a gym membership.

“We’ll give you something a lot better than that,” Martin said. “Maybe you’re not interested in a credit card, maybe you want a membership to Columbia House (Music Club).”

Gratis makes money because the companies that receive the referrals pay the company for its services. The fee paid to Gratis for all the referrals covers the cost of the free products, which are bought in bulk. Additionally, many people do not complete the offer and quit, in which case Gratis keeps the commission.

Most offers begin with a free trial period of 30 days advertisers hope will help bring long-term subscribers. Martin explained that because users sign up for just one of about 20 different available products or services, there is a good chance they’ll find something that they’re legitimately interested in.

He said, “Our demographic of users has proved to be extremely valuable to BMG Music, Blockbuster and Video Professor, who want new, long-term customers.”

But Weiss said some students cancel their subscriptions just one day after signing up without problems.

Weiss said, “If you don’t cancel they will continue to send you the stuff at an extremely high price.”

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