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Glitches Let Net Shoppers Grab Free Goods
By Greg Sandoval
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
July 6, 2000, 9:20 a.m. PT
The Fourth of July meant freedom from paying for goods at some online sites, where botched coupon deals let shoppers waltz out with free or nearly free deals.
As previously reported, during the last several weeks, computer glitches and pricing errors hit Buy.com, Staples.com and Amazon.com-backed crafts retailer eZiba.com. Watchful Net bargain hunters who trade tips on special message boards soon swooped in to load up on the steeply discounted or free goods. A malfunction at Web portal AltaVista also falsely gave customers the right to claim freebies.
"This weekend was a good time to be an online shopper," said one bargain hunter who asked to be called by his username, Vladik.
At Buy.com, a coupon meant to be worth $50 off any order of $500 or more actually gave people $50 off any purchase made over $50. Executives said the coupon was still in development and was not supposed to be released yet. But someone using a "crawler" to electronically monitor the site found the coupon and posted its code on a Web site.
From there it was quickly snatched up, and by the time Buy.com figured out it had a problem, the company faced empty virtual shelves.
"These were blatant attempts by people to get something for nothing," Buy.com chief executive Greg Hawkins said. "They took this merchandise through fraudulent means."
About 4,500 orders were placed in the daylong binge. Among those, about 340 people actually followed the terms of the coupon, buying more than $500 worth of goods.
"What are they gonna do? They can't charge my (credit card)," said one person, identified as Sirpablo on a message board. "And I'm not sending the stuff back."
At Staples.com, a system upgrade allowed shoppers to walk away with $59.99 briefcases for only a penny. The briefcases were supposed to be given away with a minimum purchase, but a glitch allowed shoppers to buy them alone for a penny, said Shannon Lapierre, a Staples.com spokeswoman. Few of the orders were actually shipped, she said.
Self-proclaimed "senior deal master" Vladik, who visits several message boards each day, including Deal of Day, FatWallet.com and Ezboard.com, provided CNET News.com with a copy of his receipt. It listed charges of 5 cents for five briefcases, 33 cents in tax, and $3.95 for shipping, for a total of $4.33.
"I'm going to sell them on eBay," Vladik said. "I just saw that someone else bought a couple of the briefcases on Staples, and he sold one for $40."
There was a run on pottery, jewelry and artwork Monday night at crafts site eZiba.com, a company in which Amazon invested $17.5 million in March, according to an eZiba spokeswoman.
The North Adams, Mass.-based company began promoting the site to Amazon customers Friday by offering a $20 discount on their first purchase, with no minimum purchase required. The company intended to give free merchandise away, according to spokeswoman Zelda Stern.
What they did not intend was for people to log on to the site and use the discount multiple times. Message boards were humming about how easy it was to use the coupon over and over again by creating different usernames. Some people boasted of even bypassing shipping charges.
Stern confirmed that a glitch temporarily allowed some people to get free shipping but downplayed the effect of people using multiple coupons.
"We consider the promotion a success," Stern said.
At AltaVista, members of the rewards program had a weeklong bonanza. The "instant rewards" program typically gives away $500 worth of shopping "points" to 20 participants a day just by signing up. But some participants discovered that refreshing the contest page repeatedly would eventually serve them a notice saying they had won.
All winners--legitimate and illegitimate alike--were sent an email informing them of the mistake. AltaVista spokesman Jim Shissler said the company will reward legitimate winners the $500 in credit as offered. He added that "winners" from the glitch will be given "something for their inconvenience for the false notification," but he did not elaborate what the prize would be.
Still, Usenet newsgroups have been buzzing with excitement over the rewards. Some say they are hopeful the error will lead to a shopping spree.
"Don't tell AltaVista, but I pressed reload about 10 times to get the winning page that day...hehe," read one message board posting.
There was a backlash against the Buy.com feeding frenzy at DVDTalk, an online community devoted to DVDs. After someone bragged about buying two movies for "less than $6," another person wrote: "This forum should be called DVD Ripoffs. It's amazing how all of you try to rationalize stealing.
"Buy.com is trying to run a business. What you're doing is simply not right. Here's hoping none of your ill-gotten orders goes through."
DVDTalk founder Geoffrey Kleinman pulled the coupon number posted on his site.
"It's important that online consumers protect the ability to bargain shop by not trying to exploit mistakes that online stores can make," Kleinman said.
News.com's Jim Hu contributed to this report.
-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), July 06, 2000