During These Troubled Times“Free” is the New Clickbait

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.


Desperate to make money while quarantined, many people are using false claims of getting something for nothing to trick people into clicking.

We have made it through one wave of COVID-19, but instead of it dying down as we were promised it would, or having access to a vaccine, more a hope than a promise, the virus seems to be ramping up for another pass at us. Here in Chicago, there's another lockdown taking place, albeit so far a voluntary one, but when I went to get some necessities yesterday everywhere was empty and many shelves were already bare. Again, except for short walks, and going to the pharmacy or grocery store, residents have been instructed to remain at home and to avoid contact with others whenever possible. It's devastating to think about going backward instead of forwards.

As we face remaining locked away in our homes once more, just as the winter is about to hit us (at least in the northern hemisphere), our already sapped energy is undoubtedly going to lag even further. This will make us more vulnerable to anything that might make our world seem happier.

With this type of unprecedented stress in our lives, it would seem that we would be more empathic and compassionate in the way we treat each other. After 9/11, I remember people becoming more caring, coming together in our need for mutual reassurance and comfort.

People let others go ahead of them in grocery store lines, people driving gave others the right of way, those asking for money on the street were rarely turned down, neighbors did errands for each other, and we did whatever we could to help each other cope with the aftermath of the terror attacks. I suppose the difference here is that we can't come together this time due to that being exactly what will put us at greater risk. But now that we are in the midst of an epidemic, however, the mentality seems to be “me first,” even at the expense of other people's well being.

Almost everyone who is not critical personnel has been sent home once more. Many are again working remotely doing the same job they did before and receiving the same income. They are the lucky ones given how many people lost their jobs during the first round of shutdowns.

Another wave of layoffs is potentially looming and even for those who may not be laid off, a number are required to take leave without pay, some for the second time. Facing a crisis that we have been in for 8-9 months which even if a vaccine is rolled out in the next couple of months experts are predicting could last another year before social distancing and mask-wearing can be relaxed people are trying to find other ways of paying their bills.

While anxiety around lost wages and growing bills is understandable, the mindset of doing whatever you need to in order to maximize your profit is not an adaptive one. Though some would argue that in an emergency situation you do whatever you need to in order to survive, that doesn’t mean throwing others under the bus as you do so. And survival is not the same thing as maximizing profit.

What has led me to write this article is a growing trend I’ve seen that is troubling. I know that we live in a market economy where people have the right to charge what they choose for goods and services and for customers to decide what they are willing to pay for these goods and services. It’s basic supply and demand.

But when there is a state of emergency, there is no place for trying to take advantage of the situation especially when it might cause hardship to others. I am referring to the practice of making false claims and practicing the age-old scam of bait and switch.

Since Illinois is once again on all but lockdown, I’ve been on the computer even more than usual (unfortunately, not for the purposes of writing). If I’m not engaged in something all the time, I find myself getting irritable. So I’ve been doing searches for all kinds of things to keep my mind occupied.

I’ve also been looking for additional activities that will bring a bit of variety to my days and possibly some added income to replace some of the income that I will be losing with the job I was counting on starting in April which won’t be happening now. Although I’m not really an artist I did have some of my fiber art creations showcased and sold in an upscale gallery in Connecticut. I thought about trying my hand at that again, perhaps even selling them online.

I have a number of hand-bound journals with hand-felted covers I’d made over the last year that I intended to display and sell at an art show at a local bookstore, which was canceled for obvious reasons. With some other items, I might manage to put together a decent enough collection to sell online.

Energized by the possibility, I took to the internet to search for wool yarn. I often have found low priced or even free skeins offered by people who were moving or just wanted to free up some space in their home. Sure enough, there were ads everywhere for yarn “free to a good home.”

The first batch was a gorgeous purple color and I eagerly clicked, then did a double-take. Not only was it not free, but it was also priced at least five times higher than what it would have cost in the store. Plus the skeins weren’t even from the same batch so it was likely they wouldn’t be exactly the same color.

Over the next half hour, I clicked on probably a dozen ads for “free wool yarn.” Not once was it actually free, the price quoted was at least double and often far higher than what it would have cost in a store, and the product offered was frequently misrepresented. Sometimes the yarn wasn’t the weight, color, or amount advertised, sometimes it was a different brand entirely, sometimes the seller required you to buy other things that I didn’t need to get the “free” yarn, and in a couple of cases, it wasn’t even really wool (a problem since if it isn’t wool, it won’t felt).

When I messaged a few of the sellers to see what they were advertising that was actually “free” the responses were quite similar - that given the current conditions, the sellers needed to be able to pay their bills and so they deserved to get as much from what they were selling as possible.

I didn’t take issue with that (okay, maybe I did a bit). What I had a problem with was advertising something as free that not only wasn’t, but which was priced at a ridiculous amount far over the original price, or which involved other problems that made the yarn worth less than it otherwise would have been.

Putting that project aside for a bit, I decided to look for a stationary bike or treadmill since the nearby community center was closed indefinitely. I turned to Nextdoor in the hopes of finding something that was inexpensive or possibly free and was close by so it would be easy to get to my apartment.

It didn’t take me long to see the same story as the yarn. Comparing this used equipment with what it would cost brand new from the manufacturer, the markup was absurd. A three year old, used, stationary bike was offered “free” but when I clicked on it, I learned that it was being sold for over $600. Looking it up online I found prices of between $99 and $129 brand new.

When I asked the seller about this, I got the same answer as I had from the yarn sellers. After the same thing happened with a treadmill that the seller actually admitted didn’t work all of the time, and needed to be propped against the wall since the backrest was broken and flopped down if not braced, I gave up.

Looking through the other ads just to see what was being sold or given away for free, I was increasingly disappointed in the behavior of my neighbors. The number of ways sellers were using the needs of others in the midst of a pandemic to try to scam buyers and take them for whatever they could, was disheartening.

Old broken junk was being offered at prices that were often far higher than what it cost brand new. Other items I came across for sale at premium prices included cribs and other baby items that were no longer used because of safety issues, clothing with tears “where no one will see,” laptops without the charger and one without the battery, cracked mirrors, stained, discolored linens and dilapidated furniture that looked like it would fall apart any minute.

The worst part of this was that many of the ads were trying to use scare techniques suggesting that we were heading for some kind of apocalyptic event and it wouldn’t be long before nothing was available so we'd better buy what they could find now. If that wasn’t bad enough, It seemed like prices were quickly escalating over time. If a bike sold for $200 Monday, a similar item was priced at $300 Tuesday, with a third offered on $375 Wed.

In the past week, I’ve seen people with no qualification offering remote life coaching and counseling services by phone, books for sale about the pandemic that are clearly a collection of plagiarized, unrelated articles, at-home medical services offered by people who weren’t healthcare professionals and individuals offering courses guaranteed to make you rich and successful at every skill and trade known to mankind despite the person offering the course having no training, background or proof that they themselves were successful in whatever the area was.

In the business world, it’s not unusual to see those offering goods and services trying to maximize profit. And it’s not as if we haven’t seen business owners taking advantage of their workers as well as their customers to increase what goes into their pocket. But with the spread of this virus, what we are seeing now goes far beyond this. It’s as if all bets are off with regards to ethics and what was more the exception has become the rule.

I think there is goodness in each of us. We have seen it come to the surface and bubble over time and time again in times of crisis. We have recognized the wide-reaching and long-term value generated through our relationships and social connections in previous large scale emergencies. And because of this we have come through all the stronger.

Let’s look to these examples, and instead of focusing only on how we can benefit, to the exclusion of everyone else, try to help each other. Things are likely going to get worse before they get better and there will people who end up in desperate situations. Taking advantage of the situation in ways that contribute to this by trying to line our own pockets will end up further separating us in ways beyond those created by the quarantine.

If we focus on each other instead of how we can profit, we will find a way through these frightening times together. If we keep focusing only on how we can benefit financially from the situation, we will weaken and possibly sever the connections we have to each other. This will leave us in a sorry state, unable to draw from the strength of the many when we really need to band together to get through this pandemic.

If we shift our mindset to reveal our true nature, we can help each other not just survive, but become better, more complete, and fuller versions of ourselves. We won’t come through this each of us alone. But together we can help each other cope through the worst of it, and rebuild our society and economy once the danger has passed.

Let’s remember to think of others during these troubled times. That’s what has always helped us survive physically and emotionally during times of turmoil. Someday this pandemic will end. When it does, we don’t want to find out that we have lost our humanity and those characteristics that are the very best the human race has to offer.

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Stories on this channel include a discussion about the things that cause us stress and the various ways we cope with an increasingly complex and chaotic world. Topics included are psychology, positive psychology and mental health, writing and writing advice, relationships and social support, maintaining a positive mindset and humor.

Chicago, IL

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