Yes, You Can Get a 'Free' Mac mini - but Is It Worth the Hassles?
Can you really get a Mac mini for free?
The short answer is: Of course not!
Here's the long answer.
You've seen the ads, possibly even on this site: Get a Palm, a gift card, an iPod, an iBook, or an Apple Mac mini for free. The list of these "free" items is endless. Maybe you've even clicked on one of the ad links and decided it was just a scam to get your email address.
This is the kind of ad that you may see three or four times and start to become intrigued. "What if they really are giving away Mac minis?" A mini would make a fine replacement for my battle-weary old beige G3 desktop.
I set out to determine just how too-good-to-be-true this offer was.
This article chronicles my one and only experience with these "gift" offers. It's intended to help you decide if offers like these are for you.
If you find it tedious just reading this account, you probably shouldn't participate in these gift promotions. They require your time, patience, attention, determination, and - yes - your money.
Although I imagine my experience with this promotion was fairly typical, your experience is likely to differ from mine and could be much worse. I do not endorse these gift incentive programs in any way. If you choose to participate in them, the risk is entirely your own.
If you have any reservations about providing your Social Security number to the operators of these gift promotions, stop right here. The items they offer are considered gifts by the IRS and are taxed as such. Read the terms of the agreement carefully.
The first step was to set up a throwaway email address. I expected spam when I signed up, and my expectations bore fruit - but more on that later.
There is more than one company making the "free" Mac mini offer. Some promoters expected me to refer my friends in a pyramid-type scheme with the emphasis on getting valid email addresses.
Since I value my friendships, I chose one that just required me to accept offers from sponsors. They seemed to be honestly representing the offer and had a knowledgeable description of the item they were offering. One promoter had referred to the mini as an "Apple Desktop PC". For me that is a misnomer, but with Apple poised to put Intel inside, the gap between Macs and PCs may be closing a bit more.
Armed with my new email address, I waded in.
Although I had the ulterior motive of getting a column out of this experience, at no time did I reveal that fact as attempted leverage to speed up the process. That doesn't mean that I didn't want to at times.
Signing up was quick. I am at least 18 and have a US address and zip code, so I qualified. I had to give my real name, phone number, and shipping address.
Interestingly, my postal junk mail has not increased, but I did get a slight increase in telemarketing calls initially. They returned to normal after a couple weeks of screening with my answering machine.
Prior to taking me to the requirements page, I was presented with some pages of optional offers. A few looked interesting, so I clicked on them for information, like many people would.
I finally got directed to the obligatory offers pages. As I suspected, the "free" Mac mini was to come with a price. I decided beforehand that I would be willing to lose $25 to find out for myself if the offer was for real.
The deal was this: I only had to complete six offers from their lists of online merchants, and a new basic-model Mac mini would be mine to keep. Six is not a lot, and there were quite a few offers to choose from.
I would spend a few hours going through the sponsor sites deciding what offers I was willing to pay for. I was required to choose two from each of three pages of offers. There was absolutely nothing I even remotely wanted, but the carrot was dangling, and I was prepared to follow it.
Okay, Let's Spend
I bought a trial day's supply of vitamin pills, signed up for a DVD movie club, and filled out applications for two credit cards (0% APR the first year), which I got. These had to be used once or have a balance transferred to meet the requirements of the "free" Mac mini offer.
I paid for a DVD tutorial on how to use Photoshop on a PC, which I never took out of the package. Be careful with offers like this one - if you don't call and cancel within a certain time and return the DVD, you will automatically be charged the full amount for it. That would have been $80 in this case. Additional shipments and charges will also occur automatically (autoship).
Lastly, I paid a dollar, or so I thought, for a trial membership in a discount buying club.
Of all the offers, the credit cards are the best way to go if you qualify for them. At least you can buy things you really want. You can always pay off the cards and cancel them as soon as the offers register as complete, but make certain that you cancel them the right way. Do a search on: "cancel a credit card" (in quotes) to find out how to keep your credit report unblemished.
It's also not a bad idea to have one paid-off card with no annual fee that you don't ever use locked away for emergencies. Do this only if you don't plan to apply for a mortgage any time soon. Mortgage companies may consider this "free insurance policy" to be a potential debt. Go figure.
I have pretty good sales resistance. I hang up on telemarketers, refuse long term maintenance contracts, and even tell the Watchtower people I have no time for them and close the door. Is that mean?
I had just spent $38 (including postage) for several items, real and conceptual, that I definitely didn't want. I had also agreed to buy three more DVD movies in the next year at their regular price. In addition, I still had to use the credit cards.
So much for the $25 idea. These guys are marketing geniuses!
After a week, only the Windows Photoshop training DVD had appeared on my completed offers page. It had been there since the first day. I was now getting an average of 156 spam emails a day at my throwaway address.
I activated the spam filter on the mail server and waited.
Three weeks had passed. The discount buying club and one credit card company had validated my purchases. After the first 10 days, the buying club, which had sent me nothing (not even an email), billed my card an additional $19.95. I found their site and emailed them to try to get the charge removed. They agreed to do so with no argument.
I was halfway done with the requirements. The hassles were minor so far.
After nearly a month, the second credit card company came through and confirmed my completed requirement. There were just two merchants left to check in.
The Last Two
The vitamins had arrived a few days after I ordered them, but the purchase had not been reported to the promoter. I revisited the company's site and filled out a customer service form, asking them to please validate the purchase. A day later, a representative emailed saying they would take care of it right away.
The DVD movie club had not sent the DVDs or charged my card. I navigated to their site and used their form to ask about my order. A day later, I received a list of answers to possible problems which had no bearing on my question. That being the case, I was to reply with my original message quoted, which I did.
In two more days, the DVD club emailed me again. They wanted my shipping address in order to verify my membership. I had already provided this in their form but I re-emailed the information.
A Woman's Touch
My wife had been watching this whole process from a safe distance. Figuring that at least one of the two outstanding offers would not be verified, she got into the act. She selected an offer for 12 music CDs for the price of one plus inflated postage, and it validated instantly. It was now one month since I had first signed up for the free Mac mini, and there was only one more purchase left unconfirmed.
The completed offer from the vitamin company had still not registered. I decided to email them again and wait a few more business days. If the results were not positive, I would have to consider giving up on them and the DVD club and selecting another offer.
Two more days passed, and the movie club confirmed that my order had indeed evaporated into cyberspace. I didn't reorder from them.
The "Carrot" Was Starting to Outpace Me
Here's how the operators of these gift promotions make a profit: Your guaranteed valid email address is worth money. Spammers will happily pay for it.
These promoters also have revenue coming in from both optional and required sponsors, whom they charge a fee to be listed in their promotions. They also make money from the sponsors when you click on a link, whether you complete a transaction or not - and still more if you do.
They are banking on at least some people deciding to cut their losses and bail out before completing all of the requirements for their "free" gift.
Many of the offers on my uncompleted page had changed since I signed on. It may have been coincidence, but I was suspicious that I was now being presented with only the most expensive, least desirable ones.
At this point I was really hoping that the vitamin folks would do the right thing and make it unnecessary to order something else. If I had to choose another offer, the least expensive options were mostly diet pills and herbal "enhancement" products with substantial hidden costs. I could also sign up for web access and pay for a month of service before canceling it unused.
I had already invested more money in this project than I wanted to.
Now the vitamin people emailed me to tell me my message to them was blank. If I still needed assistance, I should feel free to contact them again. I checked the plain text message in my sent mail, verified that it was not blank, and pasted it into a new email to them. Again I waited. At the very least, I could make them waste time answering my emails.
I should mention here that it is nearly impossible to get some of these sponsors on the phone. They already have your money. They will put you on hold. They may take your number. They won't call you back.
My third and fourth emails to the pill company had gotten through intact. Each time they assured me that my purchase would be reported. Their fourth response to my request was identical to their first, even though it came from a different representative. They had a form email to deal with these requests.
It was clear at this point, that they had no intention of validating this purchase. My next email gave them fair warning that I would report them to their state's Attorney General's office. When I didn't hear from them again, I filed the report. There would undoubtedly be nothing gained from doing this, but it made me feel better.
Before choosing another offer, I emailed the gift promotions company, explained the situation and asked if they could confirm the offer from a receipt. This didn't seem likely. It's not in their best interest to be helpful.
I was pleasantly surprised when they emailed back a day later with a fax number. I faxed the invoice from the pill shipment to the number they provided, and a day later my gift voucher was available on their site.
I printed it, filled it out, and mailed it on the same day.
It was now just a five days short of two months since I had signed up and completed the requirements for my gift.
A Good Sign
A week after mailing the gift voucher, I returned to the promoter's site, logged in, and found the following message:
Current Status: Fulfillment In Progress. Our records indicate that you have qualified for a Apple Mac Mini
We have received and processed your Gift Redemption Voucher, and a Shipping Request has been issued.
Your gift will be shipped to you via Federal Express or UPS, however it can take up to 30 days for the Fulfillment Center to assemble, package, and ship a gift after your voucher has been received.
We appreciate your patience. Your gift should arrive in the next few weeks.
Although they made it sound like they were building the mini from scratch, this made me optimistic about receiving it. Until now, I really hadn't felt that way.
There was absolutely nothing to do now but wait, and considering that it was now early December and peak shipping season, the wait wasn't long.
Just 11 days after mailing the voucher, I was in possession of a brand new Mac mini with OS X 10.4.2 installed. I removed it from the box and realized that I was holding the first Macintosh computer I've ever had that wasn't preowned.
It's not exactly free, but it can be a low-cost way to get a Mac
Is it Worth What You Have to Spend?
Subtracting the cost of the failed DVD order and adding the music CDs, my total outlay, excluding credit card purchases, was $70. I used the credit cards to purchase items I would have bought anyway. If you want to, you can add $60 to the total for these items.
A Mac mini with the features this one has retails for $499 shipped from The Apple Store. If you can be happy with these features, it's definitely worth the cost.
If you need to install a larger hard drive, more memory, Bluetooth, or an AirPort Extreme card, it may not be. Apple doesn't consider the mini to be user-serviceable. You may pay almost as much to have it upgraded by an Apple certified center as you would for a faster mini that comes with exactly what you want.
One well known third-party parts supplier offers an installation service at a cost of $99 for any number of mini upgrades at one time if you purchase the parts on their site.
There are also instructions for opening the case on the Web, but unless you are extremely skilled with your hands, doing the upgrades yourself is not recommended. It's quite easy to damage the case if you don't really know what you are doing, and you will void the warranty.
Is it Worth the Time You Have to Spend?
It took 66 days from signing up to holding the gift in my hands. Actual time spent was about 5.5 hours. This included setting up an email address, signing up, examining and Googling sponsors, ordering, emailing, phoning, reviewing statements and receipts, weeding through spam, printing and mailing the voucher and discontinuing the email address when the gift finally arrived.
There is gleeful satisfaction in knowing that all of that spam is now bouncing back to the senders.
Unless you can easily earn about $80 an hour, it's probably worth the actual time spent.
Is it Really Worth the Aggravation?
You really have to be the judge of this. Some people are less patient than others. I think I have documented the hassles I had fairly well. As mentioned, your experience will undoubtedly be different.
Some Final Notes
If you've made it this far, you may be considering signing up for one of these gift promotions. If you do, use caution when completing offers.
Use the current version of a well developed browser. I had good luck with Firefox 1.0.7 and 1.5 and Internet Explorer 5.2.3 on my Mac. Other browsers may choke or crash on the scripts of some of the less compliant sites.
Examine all of the pages of offers before you start buying. There might not be enough offers on a given page that you are willing to complete. That's good to know before you get to the last page and discover that it consists of things that you are unwilling to buy or might not qualify for. In some cases it may be necessary to at least click on the required number of offers before you can progress to the next page.
An ordering page is not secure unless your browser tells you it is. This usually appears in the form of a small lock icon in your browser's status bar or navigation bar or both. Don't trust any security logos or icons that appear on the page itself. A popup security message from your browser can be easily spoofed by the site. Always check for the lock icon.
Even if a page is secure, it's no indication that your information is safe with the sponsor you are ordering from.
If you aren't absolutely certain about the integrity of a particular sponsor, by all means Google the company name and the home URL for pages that contain it (enter the URL in quotes). Finding no mention of the company at all is cause for suspicion.
Watch your credit card statement like a hawk online. Don't wait for it to come in the mail. There is some raised potential for identity theft in these programs.
This should go without saying: Read all of the fine print. This can come in the form of popups, so don't disable them in your browser. Some of the agreements I read included some very surprising punitive charges for canceling autoship programs, like the entire cost of the next shipment. Keep copies of all agreements as either saved web archives or printed copies.
Be aware that the gift promotion company will usually reserve the right to substitute an item of equal value or cash for your gift. If the promoter of your choice has done this in the past, people will have complained about it on the Web. Do a search.
If you don't plan to do business with the sponsors again, once they have verified your purchases, return to their sites. Many of them will give you the option to delete your account, and you should do so. There's no point in having your credit card information sitting there for no good reason.
If you're really paranoid about this, make your first completed offer a credit card application. Once the card has arrived, use it for the remaining offers, pay it off, and cancel it.
Finally, These offers can have a gambling-like addictive effect. Some people have spent small fortunes trying to get things that they don't really need because they were "free". If you're at all compulsive in this way, keep a restrained eye on yourself and your credit balance.
These promotions aren't likely to disappear any time soon. Don't sign up for more than one gift at a time. It's difficult enough to keep track of a single promotion. There may also be a limit of one gift per household with some promoters.
I wish you luck!
- One year with my 'free' Mac mini, Hardy Menagh, Empowered, 2006.11.20. "For something the size of a fruitcake, the mini is a powerful little computer."
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