No such thing as a free iPod?

While I sit here waiting for Newer Technology's iPod Replacement Battery to run through its charge (16 hours, 10 minutes, and counting), I thought I'd address this "free iPod" thing.

If you spend any appreciable amount of time rummaging around in forums or newsgroups, you've undoubtedly seen message after message proclaiming that by simply getting five of your nearest and dearest (or perfect strangers, for that matter) to sign up with select services, you will get a free iPod. This is true.

Sort of.

This is a classic pyramid scheme. Note that I use the word scheme rather than scam. Reports are that some who have met the requirements of the plan -- and thus caused five people to sign up for certain marketing offers -- have indeed received a free iPod. (There are also reports that some people have not received the promised iPods or have been disqualified even though they feel they have met all requirements.)

But have no doubt, this is a scheme. The company making this offer can do so because it gets referral fees from the companies it promotes. These people aren't stupid. They've done the math and understand that what they pay out in iPods will be less than what they take in from these referral fees. How can this be? Not because the referral fees are princely, but rather because, like all pyramid schemes, the pool of sucker...er, customers, for this kind of thing is limited. The people occupying the top tiers of the pyramid have already taken the choice cuts of the population. Because those likely to participate in the scheme have already been tapped, those farther down the pyramid will find it difficult to find enough people to earn their reward. So the company takes in a load of referral fees knowing that it will have to provide iPods to only a limited number of people who participates in the scheme.

So what will the people who partake of the pyramid end up with if not an iPod? A lot of spam, to begin with. Those who sign up for these offers report that they have been inundated with spam (well, I supposed I should say more spam, as most of us already get a heapin' helpin' of the stuff). Those participating in the scheme will reply that they simply need to create an email identity specifically for this scheme and so they never see the spam, knowing that this special account will only receive this kind of junk.

They also accumulate a load of bad karma. As I mentioned earlier, you can't help but to have heard about this scheme because participants now create their own spam -- spamming message boards and newsgroups trolling for other suck... darn it, customers to earn them their iPod. Their friends are part of the scheme already (or are smart enough to avoid it) and so they seek anonymous fresh meat. In the process, they selfishly clutter otherwise useful areas of the Web, which, I believe, earns them a particularly toasty spot in hell.

But maybe you'll be one of the lucky ones. Before you commit, however, you might want to take a gander at the Pyramid Scheme Calculator -- a diverting tool I found on the Web. Though it might introduce an unwelcome bit of reality, it clearly shows that those who join the pyramid party late are the ones tasked with cleaning up the mess.

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Christopher Breen

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