University System of Georgia: Georgia Tech students can keep free Fitbits

Students were scrambling to meet Monday deadline to return the devices or pay for them

Georgia Tech students who received free Fitbits through a promotion intended for University System of Georgia employees will not have to return the fitness trackers after all.

USG said 8,000 Fitbits were sent to students and some employees who tapped into a promotion limited to USG staffers enrolled in a wellness program.

Students were facing a Monday deadline to either return the Fitbits or pay for them. Many students were frustrated over a confusing return process and misinformation about how to send the trackers back. But students are now receiving an email notification from Fitbit that they can keep the devices.

USG Executive Vice Chancellor for Operations Teresa MacCartney confirmed tonight: “All unauthorized employees and students that received a Fitbit will be allowed to keep it. If someone mailed it back, Fitbit plans to return it. The cost is being covered by Fitbit. USG will cover the cost of all authorized purchases.”

In the email signed Team Fitbit, students are being told: “We’d like you to keep your device without any additional payment to Fitbit or USG and apologize for the way this was handled, as it was confusing and not reflective of the positive experience we at Fitbit strive to give our users. Welcome to the Fitbit family.”

The cheery tone of the Fitbit missive contrasts with an earlier email from the University System of Georgia telling students to either pay or return the Fitbits and warning that non-compliance would result in the debt going to a collection agency.

A USG health website notification outlining the promotion with Fitbit was copied and shared about two weeks ago via social media. While the offer targeted USG employees enrolled in a health plan, it worked for students with USG emails, thus creating a stampede of orders. Word got out to other campuses as well including the University of Georgia, but Tech generated most of the demand.

“With Tech being a heavily engineering and computer science driven school, a lot of Tech students use Reddit, and the news spread like wildfire. Within hours of the link being posted there, it was sent to three or four group chats that I’m in,” said rising fourth year Georgia Tech student Josh Forbes of Atlanta.

Some Tech students created USG alias emails to apply for several Fitbits. “I know one student who got eight,” said Forbes.

In explaining how students could easily access the promotion, MacCartney said, “Normal practice included a verification of eligibility prior to sending the link. The email notification states that the offer was only for USG employees who do not own a tracking device and that the employee not share the email or URL to other individuals. However, we did not account on employees forwarding the promotional code. Additionally, Fitbit did not have the correct internal controls on their website to limit the number of approved subsidies.”

The fiasco and fallout inspired a lot of discussion on the Tech campus and angst among parents worried about the possible consequences to their students. “I was on the phone about this with my daughter four times this week urging her to send the thing back,” said mother Nancy Mead.

Why did so many Tech students rush to respond to the offer?

“Honestly, because it was free,” said Forbes. “I doubt most people who ordered a Fitbit wanted one for health purposes; those who would’ve used a Fitbit for fitness already had one or an alternative brand.”