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‘Free’ is Not Always Free

Anyone who’s known us or done business with us for any length of time knows that there’s no such thing as a free anything. If you use T-Mobile to access the Free Conference Call service, you likely got a rude – though not necessarily expensive – wakeup call about the fallacy of free.

The problem, as one of our clients discovered, was that the dial-in phone number for Free Conference Call was not on his T-Mobile plan. He had to use the service for business calls, and it cost a penny a minute. We investigated the charge and eventually found he got a text message about it. This wasn’t a big deal cost-wise, but it was a huge annoyance. After all, he expected it to be “free.”

In reality, it’s not a free service. Your carrier may be subsidizing the cost of the call because it helps them keep your business or gives them a platform to sell you additional services. The company that provides the service may be subsidizing it as a way to encourage you to use paid services.

Regardless, it begs the question of what else are you paying for? We might get some more specific answers from the Congressional grilling that the heads of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google underwent, but we suspect the substance won’t be any different from what we’ve discussed before. In just about every aspect of our online lives, we trade privacy for convenience.

Google, Amazon and Facebook are probably the biggest beneficiaries of this trade. Google is synonymous with online searching, and Amazon turns up as the top listing (or they buy top-of-the-page ad space) for just about anything you want to buy. Facebook will display ads for products you’ve searched for on Google or other websites and will show you ads depending on product pages you’ve liked or comments you’ve made. Oh, and did we mention that if you use a YouTube video to learn how to do something, Google can send you ads for a product you may have watched in the “how-to” video, which you can buy on Amazon.

You get all of this information for free in one sense, but you’ve paid through the nose in another sense. All of them have collected information about you, which they sell to companies who want to advertise products and services to sell. The info is sold for pennies per click, but, as they say, they make it up in volume. Through cookies, they retain info on your browsing history. That helps them direct you to products and services you are interested in. That’s your convenience. But they also know where you’ve looked and used algorithms to figure out what you might be willing to pay for whatever it is they’re selling. You could wind up getting “special offers” for goods and services at higher prices.

You can decline cookies, erase your browsing history and take similar steps to protect your privacy. But you really can’t hide from everyone, and your searching will be more difficult.

Are there alternatives? Yes, there are plenty of them. You can go back to Yahoo, which used to be the search engine of choice before Google, or you can use Microsoft’s Bing or an independent such as Duck Duck Go, which claims to protect your privacy when you search. You can try to find smaller or more local providers of goods and services independently of Amazon. You may wind up with fewer choices and fewer options.

We invite you to share your thoughts and experiences with other providers of searches and goods and services. Leave a comment and check back to share information. You may not get anything that’s truly free, but you may free yourself from hidden costs and know more about what you’re paying for.