A reader named Scott sent me his AOL cancellation story last week.
Among other things, AOL seems to be violating US phone number portability regulations with their latest scheme…
Hello Marah Marie-
I know you get a lot of these, but I just wanted to tell you my AOL horror story.
I would like to think I wasn’t stupid enough to sign-up for an AOL account, but apparently I did so without knowing it. It started when many of my friends started using AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). I was suckered into believing that signing up for a free AIM screenname wouldn’t cause me any problems. Boy was I wrong.
I used the AIM screenname on and off for a couple years without incident. Then AOL introduced something called AIM Phoneline. It is basically a phone number they give you attached to an AIM account. You can receive calls with it on your computer. I signed up for it and used the phone number to give out to places I really didn’t want to have my real phone number, but still might need to occasionally get a call from. If someone called the number, it simply went to voicemail. I could then listen to the voicemail online and return the call as necessary. All in all it was a pretty handy service and began to change the way I thought about AOL.
This past July I needed to make an outbound call from that number (long story). I hooked up a headset to my computer and proceeded to dial. The AIM software told me I needed to have a premium account to place outbound calls, so I reluctantly signed up for one after seeing they had a thirty-day free trial. Ignoring my better judgment, I gave AOL my credit card number thinking I would cancel before the thirty day trial period was over.
The very next day I called to cancel. I was told that my account upgrade was not yet complete in their billing system so I couldn’t cancel yet. Alarms began to go off, but I thought that could be plausible. I made myself a to-do and called back one week later. I received a little bit of a sales pitch, but the AOL rep representative did cancel the free trial. I was given a confirmation number and was told I would not be billed. I asked if I could still have a free account and was told that I could but I would need to go back in and re-sign up for the service. I did, and although I had to get a new phone number assigned to me I received an e-mail confirming that I had signed up for the free AIM Phoneline service. I could also go into my account area on the AIM Phoneline Dashboard and clearly see that my account type was the free one.
A month passed and sure enough, in August I got socked with a $14.95 charge for AIM Phoneline Premium Service. I immediately called AOL and demanded they credit the amount back. The rep agreed but said that she did not show my account had ever been cancelled. I gave her my confirmation number, the name of the rep I talked to, and the date and time of the conversation. The rep said she could not find any of that in her system. She insisted upon mailing me an affidavit for me to claim the charges were invalid before a credit would be issued. Strange, but I did as I was told and mailed back the affidavit and waited for a refund. They said it would be issued within 30 (!) days of them receiving the affidavit back.
I was going on a trip in September, so that occupied my thoughts and time during that month. Because a lot of charges were placed on my card while I vacationed, I somehow missed another $14.95 charge from AOL in September.
October arrived and before long I got hit again with still another $14.95 charge. That made me go back and look more closely at my September statement to find that charge. I called AOL yet again and was told by a rep named Christine that I was still being billed for my first phone number with them. The rep verified with me that my current AIM Phoneline number was on the free plan. She opened an escalation ticket and assured me that the situation would be taken care of. She gave me her name and a reference/case number. I made it VERY clear to the her that I did not want my current, free AIM Phoneline number cancelled as I had just gotten done giving it out to all those places again. She assured me multiple times that they would not cancel the new, free number.
About an hour after the call, I got an e-mail from AOL saying my new, free number had been cancelled effective immediately.
Furious at this point, I got on the phone with AOL again. This time the rep (her name was “Apple”) told me that:
- I was on the premium plan
- I never had a second phone number, and
- she had no record of my conversation with the rep that said that my free account would not be cancelled.
This despite me being able to provide her with a reference number. This made no sense because:
- Just that morning I had witnessed online my new account and that it was free, and
- I had used that new phone number.
That new phone number worked — well, at least it did work before they cancelled it again. When I was trying to make her understand this, she hung up on me. Although I was upset while talking to her, I had not raised my voice and had not used any profanity or other derogatory terms. I’m smart enough to know that doing those things just gives the reps an excuse to hang up. No, this rep hung up on me simply because she didn’t want to deal with me anymore.
I called back and immediately asked to speak to a supervisor. This rep, I think he said his name was John, refused to give me a supervisor. He seemed to think that I should talk to him instead. I finally told him goodbye, hung up, and called right back.
I got another male rep whose name was unintelligible. I again stated I wanted to speak to a supervisor. He was reluctant to give me one. Finally after making it clear that I would not share any information with him other than verifying my account, he agreed to get me a supervisor. He put me on hold for about five minutes and came back to say that no supervisors were available and asked to take my information for a callback. I made it clear to him that I would wait for a supervisor. After he placed me online for another minute, my call was taken by a supervisor named Michael.
I explained my situation to him, and he reiterated what the last rep had told me: that I had a premium account, I never had a second account with them, and I had never spoken with Christine. He even told me I had a full AOL account (albeit the free one) rather than just an AIM account. I asked him if he was accusing me of being a liar, and he gingerly side-stepped the question for awhile. Finally I was able to get some information out of him. I learned that he was located in Manilla, Philippines, and he claimed to work directly for AOL and not a company contracted by AOL.
Letting him think I was recording the call (which makes these disclosures even more shocking) he admitted that:
- There was a “glitch” in the AIM Phoneline billing system that if someone downgraded their premium AIM Phoneline account (canceling the account in reality), then signed back up for the free service within 30 days, the premium billing would continue.
- The customer would be completely unaware that this premium billing was continuing after rejoining with a free account because all the e-mails the received from AOL and the AIM Phoneline account screen would show the account as free even though the AOL systems would show it as a premium account. The only place a customer might be able to see the continued billing is if they went to the billing screen on AOL. But why would the customer do this if they thought they only had an AIM screenname and all relevant billing information for AIM Phoneline could be seen on the AIM Phoneline account page?
- The first level reps were never informed about this billing glitch despite management knowing about if for awhile. This led to the first level reps giving out misinformation and being ineffective in being able to resolve the issue when the misbilling occurred.
- Somewhat related to my issue, AOL was reassigning the AIM Phoneline telephone numbers even before 30 days had passed. This is a violation of U.S. regulations. To protect individuals, telephone numbers cannot be reassigned before 90 days. This gives the person who owned the telephone number time to notify people, particularly banks, doctors, and anyone else that would have sensitive personal information about the person of the phone number change and prevent abuse of that information. When I told Michael of this regulation, he protested saying that there was a shortage of phone numbers. That may be true, but it does not give AOL permission to sidestep that law.
- AOL is phasing out the AIM Phoneline service. Michael seemed to think this made everything OK because the service was going away.
Keep in mind Michael thought he was being recorded by me. I kept asking him questions like: “Let me clarify: AOL is aware of the fact that the AIM Phoneline account information page could be giving people wrong information, but had not made any attempt to notify customers of this discrepancy. Is that correct? Please answer yes or no.” (He answered “Yes”.)
If I thought I was being recorded, I would be EXTREMELY careful about what I said. I am sure AOL corporate won’t be pleased with his answers. Only once did he say to me, “I would prefer not to answer that.”
I also told them that I intended to file complaints with the BBB and FCC. He told me “Go ahead…” so I asked him point blank, “Let me clarify, you are telling me to file complaints with the BBB and FCC. Is that correct?” Again he replied “Yes”.
I really don’t know what more to do about the situation with the billing. Michael said he would have a refund issued for August, September, and October. I asked him for a confirmation e-mail of this which he swore he would do, but as of now I have not received it. We’ll see if the credits post. In the meantime I called my bank and changed my card number (a huge inconvenience) and opened up the preliminary steps of disputing the charges through them.
I was initially furious with AOL, but after my conversation with Michael, I almost have to laugh. I can’t believe he would be so stupid as to admit what he did while thinking he was being recorded. He must not be familiar with American lawyers and courts. At the end of the call, I told him that I actually felt sorry for him because after the things he said, corporate was going to have his head on a platter.
Feel free to post this story on your website if you’d like, but please just refer to me as Scott. Thanks.