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View Full Version : Even dead people can't escape AOL



SnakebyteXX
08-07-2006, 06:46 AM
By David Sheets
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
08/04/2006

Maxine Gauthier doesn't own a computer. She doesn't know the first thing about Web browsing or sending e-mail. She's not even sure where to find a computer's "on" button, as she describes it.

Yet for the past nine months, she has been fighting one of the most persistent and some say irritating institutions in cyberspace: AOL, formerly known as America Online.

"They just haven't wanted to let go," the 55-year-old St. Louisan said. "I don't think they'll ever really let go."

Her struggle has involved about a dozen phone calls often ending with an AOL customer service representative or manager hanging up on her. She even tried impersonating someone else in a couple of the calls. The giant online service provider wouldn't budge.

The problem? An AOL account once held by Gauthier's late father still showed billing charges accumulating against it. The account had been dormant for months; the credit card he used for it was inactive at least as long.

Nevertheless, AOL kept charging $25.90 each month for dial-up online access. Late fees for non-payment accumulated on the credit card, too.

Gauthier even offered to send a copy of her father's obituary as proof he truly was dead. AOL was unmoved.

"An AOL service guy told me to stop complaining and learn to use a computer," she said. "Then he hung up."

Customer service hell

Gauthier's experience with AOL mirrors that of millions who have tried to discontinue their dial-up or other service, only to encounter stonewalling or outright verbal abuse from the company's customer service agents. RELATED LINKS

The Dulles, Va.-based company, with more than 17 million customers, was once the leading online service provider. But it has bled customers in recent years -- it lost almost 1 million customers between May and June alone -- as more people have moved away from dial-up service toward faster, more dependable broadband Internet connections.

Most of AOL's $1 billion in profits continues to come from subscriptions to dial-up service, a market it still dominates.

Another factor in AOL's decline has been the increase in free services elsewhere online, such as e-mail and ad blocking, that AOL provided at a cost. The company announced Wednesday that it was dropping many of these charges but would continue charging fees for dial-up service.

Yet, neither the Internet's transition to broadband nor the increase in Web-based freebies has damaged AOL's bottom line in recent weeks quite as much as its lamentable customer service, now a punch line on late-night television and in cyberspace.

Thank Vincent Ferrari for that.

The New York blogger and former AOL loyalist used to spend his time online exclusively at AOL's Web portal. He even met his wife there. But broadband beckoned and Ferrari's AOL usage declined to nearly zero. He decided to end the relationship.

Ferrari had heard that breaking up with AOL was difficult to do -- customer service agents allegedly employed every trick short of threats to keep people from dropping out -- so he recorded his call to customer service and posted it on his Web site.

The acrimonious result made huge news online and on television, and inspired a flood of responses. Immediately, AOL clients everywhere recounted their own bad experiences on blogs, TV and radio.

Gauthier saw all this and was inspired. She nearly had given up her own fight.

"I saw that I wasn't the only one with trouble. So, that's why I called you," she told Tech Talk.

"Shut up and listen"

When Gauthier's father, Melvin Berkowitz, died last summer, he was living in Florida and had one credit card. Its only charges were to AOL. Gauthier's mother, Marion Berkowitz, now 80, and still living in Florida, had her name on the account but never used it.

Gauthier discovered the continuing dial-up service charge as she was settling her father's estate. She first called to cancel the AOL account last November.

"They told me I didn't have the answer to his 'security question'," a query many shopping Web sites once employed to assure themselves they were talking to the account holder, "so they said 'Thank you' and hung up," Gauthier said.

She turned to the credit card company and asked that it stop accepting the charges.

"They told me they needed a letter first from AOL saying the account was inactive," Gauthier said.

Another call to AOL, which promised Gauthier it would send the letter immediately. That was in December.

"But I never heard any word," she said. "And these charges kept appearing on the credit card statement."

She kept calling AOL, trying to find out more about the letter. AOL countered by saying it never received a request to send it.

With each subsequent call, AOL became more curt with Gauthier. During one exchange, "the guy - I think it was a manager - just told me to 'shut up and listen to what I have to say or don't bother calling.'
Then he hung up on me," she said.

Gauthier even resorted to pretending she was her mother, because her mother's name also was on the credit card statement. "No luck. They just kept asking me for the answer to the security question," Gauthier said.

A nice guy named Ben

Through the spring and early summer, Gauthier made no progress. The charges -- and now, credit card late fees -- kept mounting, totaling at least $200. After Ferrari's experience with AOL became public, she pressed harder, thinking the bad publicity might loosen AOL's grip.

In June, she called again. This time, AOL insisted that her father's account had not been active since January, and AOL had not charged Melvin Berkowitz's credit card since.

The credit card statements since January, however, said otherwise.

Gauthier again called the credit card company. In early July, she received two letters from it. The first said the charges were fraudulent. The second said they weren't.

"That's when I gave up and called your Tech Talk column," she said.

We tried contacting AOL using all the customer service numbers Gauthier had used. Initially, AOL's headquarters in Virginia didn't answer our messages, so we tried the general customer service number. Within seven minutes, Tech Talk was speaking to Ben, based at an AOL customer service center in Albuquerque, N.M.

Ben, in fact, was very nice.

"A few bad apples"

"If (a customer calls) and gets an AOL rep such as myself, we have to cancel that account at their request," Ben said, explaining procedure. "We have to honor that request. So, there is no ulterior motive or agenda on us to not cancel, really.

"It changed recently where, you know, we have to cancel immediately,"

Ben continued. "We can offer them a better price; that's our job. But if they're adamant, then you cancel the account."

Gauthier had given Tech Talk her father's account information, and we in turn passed it along to Ben, who couldn't give his last name because AOL disallowed it.

"I see here that on May 28, there was a form filled out that this person was deceased. ... That account is cancelled out, right now," Ben said.

He explained that, for whatever reason, the form didn't get back to Melvin Berkowitz's file until mid-June, "so that month was our last bill. There won't be any more bills; I can assure you of that."

Not long after Tech Talk spoke to Ben, we received a call from Sarah Matin, AOL corporate communications manager, in Dulles, Va. She denied that AOL condoned hard selling among its customer service workers.

"We have a huge volume of customer service, millions of customers, so within that scale, of course, there are going to be a few bad apples," Matin said. "Obviously, we have to do much better."

Resolution, or not?

Finally, this month, Gauthier was able to cancel her father's credit card. The AOL charges, going back to last summer, were wiped away, and she was reimbursed for both the charges and late fees.

But the story apparently isn't over. It turns out that Gauthier also has an AOL account, established more than a decade ago when her two daughters were pre-teens first learning to surf the Internet. She has no idea what has become of the account; it has been dormant for years.

She never used it. She's hesitant to find out its status.

"After going through all that trouble over my father, I'm not sure I could handle that again," she said.

Plus, there's this: A few days ago, Gauthier obtained a letter from AOL that was sent to her mother in Florida. The letter was addressed to Melvin Berkowitz.

"Dear Mr. Berkowitz," it said. "We hope you'll come back to AOL."

Once an AOL customer, always an AOL customer.

web page (http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/business/columnists.nsf/techtalk/story/A0F7FD49EFA6565A862571BF006C005A?OpenDocument)

wolfdancer
08-07-2006, 08:48 AM
" till death do us part, and then some....."

Chopstick
08-07-2006, 02:59 PM
I had and ISP do the same thing to me. I terminated an account and they kept right on billing. Finally I told them I was going to prosecute them for fraud and they went away.