Adventures in Free e-Cigarettes – Fool Me Once

I’m ashamed to admit it, but it seems I got roped in with a free ecig deal. Let me come right out and say this article is going to be a departure from what you normally see on this site.  I generally try to avoid vendor bashing.  For me, it’s more about the products and issues surrounding the community, so even if there is a vendor I personally have a problem with, I try to remain silent. In this case, I believe enough people have been affected, and it serves as a cautionary tale to use caution when considering promotions like free e-cigarette kits.

strings attached

How it began

So how exactly does someone who’s been writing about e-cigarettes for so long, someone who wrote a missive on avoiding free e-cigarette scams get roped into one himself? The best way to handle this is to simply tell the story and let you, the reader decide what exactly is going on.  Maybe I am just too close to this experience, and the whole thing is a misunderstanding that makes the company look bad.

Late November I received an e-mail from a person I assume is the marketing or affiliate manager from this company. The e-mail said that they would like to work with me, and they have a new promotion going on.  The promotion was for a free starter kit, well 1 cent actually, they charged a penny for age verification.  There was no further commitments required of the customer.  This is pretty normal, Apollo does the same thing with their free disposable giveaway, and that is definitely legit.

The e-mail also mentioned their affiliate program which offered a whopping 50% commission on any future purchases made by customers referred to them with this deal. That did set off a red flag with me. If a company can give away half the retail price on something, clearly there was a lot of padding in the profit margin.  The most generous affiliate programs in this industry give out 20% while 10 or 5% is much more common.

Naturally, I decided that it might be a good idea to check this deal out a little more closely to find out what they were up to.  First I checked the page for this deal to make sure there was no fine print.  That page specifically said that there were no strings.  See the screenshot below for the page in question at the time.

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screenshot -redacted

That page is still up, but now omits the no recurring costs or free trial offer text found in the original above. When clicking the “redeem” button, the product page that came up also made no mention of any sort of recurring fees or future payment.  So far so good.

The question still remained of motives.  The sales page says that they’re doing it to get as many people to switch as possible.  That’s all fine and good, but you could probably accomplish the same thing with a disposable, plus the outside commission thing means there had to be a better business case than trying to defeat big tobacco.

Figuring they were trying to get customers onboard and then try to sell them refills and extra batteries and the such, I checked out the other products page for an answer.  It appears that they want to get people to sign up for their membership deal.  That is a recurring fee thing where you pay between 20 and 26 dollars to get 10 or 15 cartomizers per month and an extra battery every three months.

While I’m not exactly a huge fan of automatic billing, the deal didn’t seem that outrageous when compared to what these types of companies tend to charge for pre-filled cartomizers. That explains where they’re getting the markup for their commission structure and the freebie kits.  Figuring some people might actually be OK with a membership-type deal while most simply would take the free kit and run, I decided I was ok with what the company was up to.

I also noticed that the same deal hit Reddit in both the e-cigarette and freebies sections.  Shady deals tend to get shot down fast in the freebies subreddit, so it seemed like this was the real deal.

I placed an order for the penny kit using an e-mail address not associated with the blog to avoid any kind of preferential treatment.  Once I received the shipping notification, I let my contact know I had ordered the kit and would schedule a review.  Once I got the kit, I found that it was a surprisingly competent 510 auto battery kit, and ran it as a deal of the moment while I began working on the review.

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Things go downhill

ID-10024349So far, so good, right?  I thought so, until I posted the pictures I took for the review to my Facebook page. Someone posted a comment on the photo that there was now a condition on product page noting you would automatically be billed $30 in a month for 15 refills.  I verified the new conditions were there and sincerely hoped it was some sort of mistake.  The sales page remained unchanged noting that it was a free giveaway with no strings.

I e-mailed my contact to see if there was some sort of mistake on the product page. Meanwhile, I also posted to Reddit asking if anyone else noticed this.  Some pointed out that there was always a “free” kit on the site that included the subscription and the special deal was a different page.  But, it turned out the link on the sales page now pointed to this existing promotion with the commitment.

I also removed the deal of the moment post until I got to the bottom of things. It’s probably also worth noting that the same subscription when purchased separately is $26.95, but the free kit’s subscription is $30.

I received an e-mail back from my contact who informed me there was no error and the deal had expired December 4th.  I replied back I mentioned that this happened on the 3rd, and there was no notice on the sales page of an end for the offer or any indication there would be a re-bill.

The only response I got back was that people could cancel after the first $30 shipment, making the kit an excellent value for $30.  At that point I decided to just wash my hands of the whole thing after posting a brief explanation of the events in my newsletter for the week and deciding to quit the affiliate program.

Things go from bad to worse

Fast forward to the end of December and I get a purchase notification from my credit card of a charge for $31.90.  Not cool.  Thinking this is just a mistake, another e-mail goes off to my contact to see if this can be straightened out.

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ID-10032665Meanwhile, around the same time threads started pouring in to Reddit about the same thing happening to other people.  Some reported they were able to get things fixed by contacting customer service and telling them the Reddit deal had no subscription, while others had no luck. Several users also noted they did not get billed at all as it should have been.

After no response from my contact in several days and the threads building up about the debacle, I ended up filing a dispute with my credit card company.  I have not received anything back from them as of this writing.  I also received my monthly refills via USPS and marked the package as refused, return to sender.

Perhaps I initiated the nuclear option too soon instead of first attempting to contact customer service.  However, it’s been my experience with most any company if you have some sort of relationship with somebody that works in the marketing or sales department, things can get done very efficiently.

That leads us to where we are now.  While I admit I’m a little cheesed while I write this, I’d like to say my motivation is more to put this out here as a cautionary tale. I’m probably more mad that I had anything to do with promoting this deal, no matter how briefly it was.  I have tried very hard to maintain the integrity of this site, and my association with this mess is a black mark on that reputation.  You deserve better, and I feel like I’ve let you down.

I should have put more stock into my dislike of subscription plans.  I probably should have been a little more wary with a company offering such a high commission rate.

I will try to do a better job making sure these things pass the sniff test before publishing them.  And, as a matter of policy, from this point forward, I will not review products from companies that offer products with recurring billing schemes.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.  Could this have been a mistake on the billing side by the company, or was this all underhanded?

 

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Steve K

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11 Comments

  • I tried this offer, and I was not even charged the $0.01. It doesnt show up on the card on my reciept.

    I only smoke on occasions, and figured a healthier way would be ideal. Now I have this battery and a few more cartomizers left. Without doing business with this company again, is there any compatable one that you would suggest?

    • The cheapest route would probably pick up some blank cartomizers from a general reseller like MadVapes and some e-liquid either from there or one of the many e-liquid shops around and fill them yourself. If you want to stick with pre-filled cartomizers, some e-liquid companies like Johnson Creek offer pre-filled cartomizers. The kit is a standard 510 kit, so cartomizers are very easy to come by in many different styles.

      • Thanks. I picked up the smok tech 1.7 ohm cartomizers and some juice. In hindsight, I am hoping the resistance is not too low. So much info to go through for a newb.

        • 1.7 is probably a touch low for these types of batteries. I don't think it will break the battery or anything, but I'm pretty sure a charge will not last as long with those cartomizers as it would with the stock ones. You probably want to go with 2.0 and above with these types of batteries. I am a fan of the smoktech 1.7 ohm cartos though :)

  • I felt I was incredibly diligent in making sure I was only going to pay the one cent and NO RECURRING CHARGES because it sounded like a total scam from the beginning. But of course, they charged me too. I called the bank and did a charge back, and I suppose I will follow your example and return the cartridges I received back to sender. I tried to call just minutes ago and was told I was caller 51, so I will try tomorrow to end the ordeal.

    • Good luck to you! I'm still going back and forth with my card company. They want all this documentation, and seem to be under the impression I actually ordered this stuff, so I'm trying to explain that no, that's the problem I did not order it. =/

  • I participated in this deal too, but was extremely wary from the get-go, as it seemed too good to be true. I used a one-time card number generated online, and so far so good as far as a recurring charge. I haven't received any carts either. As you said, it's a decent (albeit not great) starter kit. I'd NEVER pay $60 for it, but for a penny I don't have any complaints. Sorry to hear that others haven't been as lucky.

    • Amex used to do disposable numbers back in the day, I was a big fan of that. They eventually did away with it claiming that their online fraud protection was sufficient enough. Probably just their merchants complained too much that they couldn't auto renew stuff.

      • I may have spoken too soon. A few weeks ago, I received an email that the charge attempt was declined (as it should have been). Sent a note back reminding them that there was to be no recurring billing associated with my purchase and requesting a confirmation that this was the case. No reply, but no further attempts at charging.

  • It was no mistake. You know, that whole "…free lunch…" thing.

    The dilemma you face now is how consumer friendly the credit card is – or not – that these recurring charges are being billed to. "Not friendly" will side with the vendor, if all the vendor does is claim you did agree to the subscription. (This will be asserted to be a subscription – not a purchase, thus the recurring charge.) "Friendly" gets it, and will not only reverse the charges but will put a block on further charges from the company. In my experience the level of support you get from a credit card – or not – varies wildly.

    You will also want to check in with the Attorney Generals office in the State you reside in. Once the credit card reverses the charge, should additional merchandise continue to show up you may just… keep it. In my State the Consumer Protection Law is: you don't have to return unsolicited or unordered merchandise delivered to your door. But what anyone decides to do regarding that may depend on their credit card policy – some credit cards will insist you at least make an attempt to return any merchandise regarding a charge in dispute.

    This is also a stellar example as to why using a debit card associated with your bank account to make purchases is always a really bad idea. You may get the money back – eventually – but in the mean time it's your money that is being sucked out of your bank account, and still your liability if those recurring charges create an overdraft problem.

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