Why America Online can bite me.

I wrote this on December 11, 2005, two months after I canceled my free trials of AOL.

AOL is running the biggest scam the world’s ever seen: thee ‘free’ 50-day trial. I got taken in by it back in August, 2005, when I spied free AOL discs on a magazine rack where I worked. I took a disc — several, actually — because my ISP was WalMart Connect, which is really AOL 2.SL0W.

With WMC I’d click a link, feed the cat, use the bathroom, and if I was lucky, the page would almost be done loading. In contrast, I popped AOL’s disc in, cooked dinner, and even redecorated my house while it installed. As if that wasn’t enough wasted time, the final screen connecting me to their server crashed so I had to start all over again. What should take 20 minutes took me over 3 hours: running an install disc.

Seeing AOL’s silly White Cloud/Starry Night “portal” made me grind my teeth along with all those links on their “Welcome” page. How many links does anyone need? Why does AOL think we need over 10,000 of them? And the viruses on “auto-load” surprised me: both Netsky (twice) and ZoboWorm. Luckily Norton Anti-Virus caught all of them for me. I was inundated by pop-ups, too. As I checked email and visited websites pop-ups kept popping up. When I tried to sign off it updated itself instead, which after 20 or so days was hard to believe: the software didn’t improve but the advertising sure did. So that’s what “downloading animations” really meant!

My computer ran slower on AOL, but I liked their email (after all, WMC has only one email style: ‘plain’) so I sampled 9.0’s pretty fonts and styles for a day or two, then got tired of AOL and went back to using WMC. Around that time I began selling stuff on eBay. I stayed with WMC for the first few ads I ran but the ad-design forms take over 5 minutes to load on WMC, with 5 or 6 forms per ad, so I gave up and started using AOL again for the quicker page loads (between 30 seconds and 3 minutes; better, but my computer ran slower as a result).

I sold stuff on eBay for a month, then found what my boss calls A Real Job and finally uninstalled AOL. I knew zilch about computers, but I knew AOL was on mine after working through my Add/Remove List – so did Hijack This!, a hijack-detector that showed AOL’s “Connectivity Services” as a hijack of Windows NTFS Services after I uninstalled it, so I lurked in tech forums and learned that AOL had infected my computer like a virus, making copies with unrecognizable folder names which were unerasable until I wiped out the OS and did a fresh install. I had 30 programs on my OS (all downloaded at WMC’s snail speed) so I deleted AOL file by file instead. That didn’t take me too long: maybe 7 or 8 hours, tops.

I canceled AOL the next day. That was a breeze compared to what I’d gone through the night before; a call-rep named ‘Maurice’ even gave me a free 2-month extension on another account I had, which I wanted to hang onto for the extra email address. I hung up feeling sure that I’d have no more problems with AOL.

Around that time I used AIM to message someone on eBay. AIM clogged up my dialup connection and slowed my computer down, too. When I ran it, it opened AOL.com’s home page and I couldn’t even kill it from Taskbar so I killed it from Task Manager instead, then I tried to uninstall it, but checking Explorer afterward I found even more copies of it. While deleting those I found even more AIM and AOL files, so I lurked in forums again and learned that using AOL or AIM (I forget which) for the first time can auto-load a “Set Up ICQ File” which isn’t ICQ at all; it’s actually a virus. My heart pounding, I checked Explorer and sure enough, there was the file. The amazing thing was I would’ve wrecked my hard drive if I’d run that file without knowing any better because I used ICQ at the time, too. (For more on how my computer crashed anyway, when I tried to get rid of every last bit of AOL, read My computer crash, and why Google sucks).

My other free trial of AOL didn’t end until December 2005 after the extension that ‘Maurice’ gave me, but I’d had enough of AOL’s fun and games, so I looked up “canceling AOL” online (knowing I’d save time doing it by email) but I soon learned that calling, faxing, or writing in a cancellation is all AOL would accept. Of course. Why make it easy?

When I called I was told by ‘Allan’ that the free trial for the account had ended. Expect a bill for $23.90, he said. I said there was no way I was paying $23.90 a month, that they couldn’t give AOL to me for free, that ‘our time together’ was over and done, so he started overt psychological warfare by asking what my reason was for canceling. I gave him all the reasons: how AOL auto-loads spyware, adware, pop-ups, and viruses like no other ISP can. He asked if I had another ISP and if I was happy with it. I admitted I was having an affair with a competitor’s service that seemed like it might be the real thing.

“So you want to cancel?” “Yes, I want to cancel,” I answered, dumbfounded. “That’s why I’m calling!” He offered more free months of service, but I said “No – just cancel it,” so he went into how he didn’t want me to cancel, how his screen name was this and his email address was that, and how easy it was to re-activate by logging into AOL.com (which re-activates your AOL account after you’ve canceled it, BTW); then he began his filibusters – I mean speeches – about how ‘Today’s AOL’ offers “so many features” so I took an extended nap out of sheer boredom. He spoke for over 10 minutes without a pause, a mind-numbing feat that made me wish he’d gone into auctioneering instead of needling me in his best “How could you?” voice into changing my mind. I seized a quiet moment to say, “Look, I’m not interested. Would you cancel my account, please?”

“Well, uh…I can go ahead and do that, in fact your cancellation number is **********, but there’s a $50 surcharge for canceling once the free trial is over. You’re aware of that, right?”

“**No, I wasn’t aware of that!”

“There’s a $50 surcharge. If you’re willing to accept that, there’s no problem, I guess. I’ll go ahead and process your cancellation.”

“Look, do you know what cancel means? It means stop the service! I’m not paying you $50 to stop it! Do you understand?”

“We are canceling the service, but with a $50 surcharge. Or you can keep on using AOL; we’ll bill you $23.90 a month for another year. When you ran your install disc, you saw your options: hourly, monthly, or $23.90 a month, tied to a one year contract…by not canceling before your free trial ended, you agreed to be billed $23.90 a month. We have no choice but to charge you $50 for breaking the contract.”

“I’m not breaking the contract. I called over a month ago but your buddy ‘Maurice’ there wouldn’t let me cancel. He even gave me two more months free. I still have a free month and a half left.”

“He gave you two more months on another account. That trial is still active. This one isn’t.”

“Well, he told me he was canceling one account and extending the other. He canceled the wrong one — he doesn’t know what he’s doing — now you’re charging me $50?”

“We have no choice but to charge $50 for breaking the contract.”

“I’m not breaking the contract! You guys screwed up, don’t turn around and blame me! Let me speak to your boss.”

“No one’s available but I’ll take your screen name and a message and he’ll get back to you within 24-48 hours.”

“Oh, you’re full of it. No one’s going to ‘get back to me.’ Get me a supervisor now!”

“No one’s available, but as I said…”

“I’m not paying $50 for your mistake. You and everyone else at AOL can go #*$# themselves.” (**Note: the above ‘chat’ was edited for language so strong and offensive at times – on my part – that I’ve decided not to reprint it.) I tried so hard to straighten this out before I hung up, my dinner sat on the table, ice-cold, for 20 minutes before I finally ate it. Then I called back for more fun and games with the AOL Call Center staff.

I got another rep this time, ‘Damian,’ who I think must have sat next to the first guy I spoke to. He said all the same crap the other one did, including that the $50 surcharge was “mandatory” for early cancellation. So I told him, “‘Maurice’ canceled the account that I had until October to cancel, not the trial that was almost over with when I spoke to him. He did the exact opposite of what I asked him to do. Charge the $50 off his paycheck, but leave me alone. Just cancel it.”

“It is canceled. But don’t blame ‘Maurice.’ He didn’t know you had another account.”

“My accounts show up when you plug my name into your computer, right?”

“I can’t say what ‘Maurice’ was looking at on his computer.”

“Look, I’ve been on the phone for an hour and 15 minutes and I’ve had enough! I asked ‘Maurice’ to cancel the account but he never did, and I’m not paying $50 for your mistake.”

“It’s not my mistake; it was ‘Maurice’s’ mistake.”

“You just said, ‘Don’t blame ‘Maurice.'”

“Well…yes, I did!” he said, laughing.

“Look, I don’t think this is funny! Put me through to your supervisor.”

Thinking he’d leave me hanging in the wind all night, I was glad his supervisor, ‘Tim,’ picked up as fast as he did. I told him about ‘Maurice’s’ so-called ‘mistake,’ then added, “Can you straighten this out for me? Your call reps won’t do it. They say I have to pay $50 for “early cancellation,” or keep the service for another year at $23.90 a month.”

“That’s correct. ‘Maurice’ might’ve made a mistake you were unaware of, that I’m sure he was unaware of, too, but either way the account is still open. The free trial for it is over, so if you want to use AOL that’s $23.90 a month for the next year. Or, you can cancel and incur the $50 surcharge. Those are your choices.”

“Look, I’m going to give you choices. You can cancel my account with no surcharge, or you can read about this conversation on the Internet, because that’s where this is going.”

“Well…ahhh…” he stammered.

“Well? What’s your choice?”

“Well, uh…there’s nothing I can do.”

At my wit’s end, I filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau a few days later. AOL wrote the BBB back about 2 weeks later (but never wrote to me); the BBB then sent me a copy of AOL’s letter. There was all the usual BS: AOL ‘strives for World Class Customer Service’ so the call reps’ treatment of me was ‘unacceptable,’ they were ‘glad’ to get my complaint so future calls to them will be ‘a better customer service experience’, then I learned that I’d ‘apparently misunderstood the terms of service,’ so AOL canceled my account ‘with no charges incurred.’ It’s signed Heidi Jongquist, Manager. My favorite line was, I ‘apparently misunderstood the terms of service.’ Read what I wrote here (I color-coded key parts in this color to ensure anyone can see what the problem was). Which part did I misunderstand? Which part did AOL misunderstand?

Let’s review: AOL wanted $50 out of me for a free trial that I thought I canceled because ‘Maurice’ canceled another free trial that I never used. I refused to pay AOL $50. They said in that case, I had to pay $286.80 for another year of AOL, whether I wanted it or not, because using AOL is ‘mandatory.’

Let’s add this up: $286.80, which they’ll never get from me, vs. all the money they’ll lose on everyone who will never use AOL because of me.

Read on for the conclusion: Pass me my coaster…I mean, my AOL disc.