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women in bikinis running into the ocean Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

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Why Those Free Bikinis on Instagram Aren’t Really Free

Mysterious retailers like Folsom & Co. use Instagram to advertise their “limited-time” swimsuit sales. But customers are complaining they’ve been duped.

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It started in late March with a casual scroll through my Instagram feed. An advertisement for a swimsuit caught my eye. The sponsored post featured professional-looking photography, minimalist sans-serif font, and a familiar kind of Instagram model — tan and thin, with an hourglass waist and full chest. She wore a black two-piece with a trendy high-cut bottom.

Below it, the caption read: “We are giving out FREE BIKINIS to celebrate the launch of our new collection. So get FREE BIKINIS on us, while supplies last!”

It seemed gimmicky, and I’d never heard of the company being advertised: Folsom & Co. But thanks to Instagram, which boasts 800 million active users every month, small boutique brands have a global platform that makes it easier to reach out to potential customers. Now stir in the rise of influencers, FOMO-induced “doing it for the ’gram,” and the ease with which people can share posts and tag other users in the comments. Instagram can be a marketing goldmine.

Photo: Instagram

The Folsom ad seemed to share the same aesthetic of posts from fast-fashion companies like Asos, H&M, and Forever 21, all of which seem to have the same target clientele as Folsom & Co. The company’s Instagram also didn’t seem too different from other swimsuit companies that use brand ambassadors, filters, and pretty locales to collect an Instagram following.

Salty Mermaid and Miau Swimwear get people dreaming of year-long summer. Sunny Co. Clothing famously promoted a free swimsuit giveaway last year; the red one-piece retailed for $80, but people found it for less than $3 on the Chinese wholesale site Alibaba.

Because there are plenty of reputable companies on Instagram, it can make weeding out the suspicious ones harder. Based on Folsom’s Instagram comments, the Better Business Bureau, and my own test purchase, there was good reason to be suspicious of Folsom’s free bikini giveaway, so I decided to give it a test.

First off, “free” is a little misleading. You still have to pay for shipping and handling, which on April 1 was $9.49 per item (yes, per item, not per order). After forking over the shipping fee for a “Roxane” bikini, I waited. And waited. Long past the “2-4 weeks” estimated shipping, after I’d filed a complaint with the California attorney general and contacted Folsom several times via email, the package arrived on May 17 via China Post.

A few days later, I received an email from customer service. Confusingly, the email was signed “Gilbert,” but the sender’s name was Shella Hatol. Gilbert/Shella said to check the order status and, to answer why the product was coming directly from China:

Like Apple and other many great companies, our team takes time to design the majority of our products in the United States. We then work with our highly trained teams overseas to manufacture & ship them to your door.

Folsom’s website claims the company takes its inspiration from San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where the company is supposedly based. I did a reverse image search and found other merchants selling the same bikini for various prices (even featuring the same model). Again, more companies I had never heard of: TushLift, IndieFit, Cymonnes, Lana Zoe Beauty. In Lana Zoe’s case, Folsom’s Roxane bikini was dubbed the “Amy.”

Image: Google

Customers claim Folsom is a scam

In May, after talking to customers who received and haven’t received their bikinis, their consensus was mostly the same: They think Folsom is a scam.

Leah B. said she ordered the free bikini in December and more than four months later still hadn’t received it or an explanation for the delay. “Every month I email and say I want my money back and get one of those auto messages saying I can ‘track my package,’’ she said.

Agnes Y. claims she was able to get a refund after reporting Folsom to the attorney general’s office. She said she purchased three purses in early April after seeing an advertisement on Instagram and received the purses after filing the complaint.

Emma R. also said she was “completely fed up and annoyed” after not receiving the swimsuit she ordered on April 15. Emma said she tried calling the phone number listed on the Folsom Return Policy page, 1-855-778-0834, but no one has ever answered. She also forwarded an email from customer support. Her only response so far:

“I don’t know if I will ever get my product,” said Kristen H., who ordered the Roxane bikini. Like the others I spoke to, she discovered Folsom after seeing a sponsored post on Instagram. Also like the others, any response from Folsom has been slow, nonexistent, or automated. “I messaged them through Instagram and they said my order was in shipment, but when I went to track it on the website it said it was still processing. Processing for seven weeks!” Kristen said.

Two customers who reported receiving their products had mixed responses. Taylor W. said she received a pink bikini a month or two after ordering and the bikini has a “much different quality than it is perceived to be.” She did not receive the other items she ordered along with it. “It’s a scam. Sadly lost a good chunk of money to it,” she said.

Haley M., however, ordered thee items and received them a month later, saying they were of average swimsuit quality. Regarding the shipping delays, she said, “I think it’s just because they are gaining more and more customers, which results in more orders, so being patient is all one can do.”

I requested an interview with someone from Folsom about the company. Someone named Mon claiming to be the customer service manager sent an initial response via Facebook, saying Folsom was busy because of order volume but would be more than happy to assist. Mon ceased communication afterward.

Official investigations into Folsom

An online search for Folsom brought me to its profile on the Better Business Bureau, where Folsom had an F rating. The nonprofit nongovernment organization rates companies on their track record, which includes how companies address customer concerns.

A post shared by Folsom & Co (@shopfolsom) on

“One of the most important rating factors is the company’s willingness or ability to respond to a complaint,” said John Novaria, a representative from the Better Business Bureau’s Los Angeles and Silicon Valley division. “If a company consistently fails to respond to complaints or our attempts to contact them, their rating will drop quickly. That’s the case with this business.”

Novaria added that the Better Business Bureau first learned of Folsom when a consumer posted in the BBB ScamTracker about a flash sale on watches. “Apparently they were selling watches at very low prices but the watches were never shipped,” Novaria said. Indeed, Folsom did start off with questionable watch promotions before expanding to bikinis.

At least 84 consumers from across the United States filed complaints about Folsom to the bureau, but the bureau received no response when it tried repeatedly to contact Folsom. The bureau filed 39 of those complaints as unanswered, while the remaining are pending — meaning Folsom still has the chance to respond before the bureau closes the complaint.

Meanwhile, the Better Business Bureau has started an investigation to determine why the company is failing to respond to complaints. “The business also failed to reply when we notified it we were launching an investigation,” Novaria noted.

The wild world of Instagram promotions

This sort of publicity stunt isn’t new because it works — people love free stuff.

In 2016, the Seattle startup Girlfriend Collective gave out free leggings before selling them at full price, and the company is still offering a way to earn free leggings. Despite murmurs that the free leggings were a scam, fashion writers insisted “this is not a scam.” It helped that for the sake of transparency, the co-founders Ellie and Quang Dinh also gave interviews.

Last spring, Sunny Co. Clothing ended up in a PR disaster after offering a red one-piece swimsuit for free to anyone who regrammed an Instagram post and used the promo code. The promotion went viral, and complaints came in from customers who either never received the swimsuit or had to pay full price.

But the company’s co-founder, Brady Silverwood, released a statement promising the delivery and refund for those who had to pay. And according to a follow-up by Teen Vogue, Sunny Co. Clothing seemed to follow through with the promise, albeit with several months of delay and possibly overpriced shipping and handling.

A post shared by Folsom & Co (@shopfolsom) on

As Jenny Odell wrote when she first covered the Folsom “free watch” promotion last year, mysterious businesses like Folsom, among a handful of similar companies she uncovered, use social media to sell a cohesive brand, and “the internet makes it possible for anyone to tell any story, about anything, from anywhere.”

These curated Instagram accounts from “boutiques” and entrepreneurs you’ve never heard of feature aspirational human beings living the adventure and life that you want. Yes, you can quit your job, travel the world, and make a six-digit salary from it! Just join this mailing list for free tips that will eventually lead to a pyramid scheme. Yes, you can look like a sexy Instagram model this summer! Just order this bikini at no cost, but it may or may not arrive.

Negative feedback? On Instagram, it’s easy to sweep comments under the rug by deleting them, turning off comments, or using keyword filters to hide offensive comments. Taylor Swift famously use the comment moderation tool to hide comments with snake emojis on her Instagram. Click on a Folsom post with 50 comments and only four comments might appear.

A pretty website can be misleading

Part of selling a company’s legitimacy is having a legitimate-looking website. But don’t let the gloss fool you. If you look through Folsom & Co.’s website, the red flags seem to be there. First of all, thanks to websites like Shopify, Squarespace, and Wix, anyone can make an aesthetically pleasing, modern website. Folsom uses the Brooklyn theme on Shopify and at the time of writing had disabled right clicks.

One red flag: We don’t know who’s behind Folsom. Startups typically like telling the story about where they came from — for example, Harry’s, the New York company that started selling mail-order razors. Its website clearly names the two founders and shows pictures of them in their manufacturing factory in Germany.

But Folsom’s website features no founding story and just a generic photo of a San Francisco cable car on the About page. A Google Maps search of the company’s address, 340 Ventura Avenue, Palo Alto, shows a nondescript apartment complex.

The Better Business Bureau does list Mr. Shella Hatol as the principal contact. Website Informer also lists Martin Ochwat as the Folsom website’s registrant. After doing a search, I could not find any articles or profiles like LinkedIn that show Hatol or Ochwat as employees at Folsom.

Contact information isn’t clear either. The Contact page features a chatbot. To find a phone number, you have to click on FAQ, then scroll down and find the Refunds section, then click on a link to the Refund page, where a phone number is listed at the bottom. The phone number is different from the one listed on the Better Business Bureau.

But on top of all that, the most suspicious website features are the “countdown” to the flash promo and constant pop-ups on the bottom corner of your screen telling you who just purchased a swimsuit. The limited-time Roxane bikini might say “only eight hours left, seven left in stock.” But it might have also said that two months ago.

Then, removing any last chance for respectability, the website says “As seen in” with logos of the Atlantic, the Times, and New York magazine — all reputable publications. However, there are no links to where Folsom was featured. I took it upon myself to search for Folsom’s endorsement in all those publications and these were the three articles that came up:

“The Strange Brands in Your Instagram Feed”

“Fashion victims fall for fake luxury on Instagram”

“The Weird World of Viral ‘Free Watch’ Scams on Instagram”

Sneaky move on Folsom’s part — I almost want to laugh at the absurdity. I suppose it doesn’t matter though. Should Folsom & Co. shut down, there are many more just like it and new ones that will crop up. The internet allows anyone to set up shop, make an attractive website, and easily procure mass-produced goods in China. Add Instagram marketing and people who love freebies and that’s a formula for business success — if temporary, at least.

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