The AOL List: Customer Dis-Service

David Cassel (
Tue, 25 Mar 1997 13:27:27 -0800 (PST)

		C u s t o m e r   D i s - S e r v i c e 


Keri Lynch switched to AOL's $20 a month unlimited use plan.  "For an
unknown reason, it did not 'take'," she wrote in a letter to Steve Case. 
The bill for February showed charges for the bring-your-own-access plan of
$9.95 a month--plus $2.50 for every hour of dial-up connectivity.  "On
3/5/97 I was billed for $205.93 and so far this month, I have been billed

So she wrote America Online asking for a refund--and instead received a
form letter telling her what she already knew:  she would be billed $2.50
for every hour of connectivity.  ("Thank you for using America Online," 
the message ended.)  "I am livid that someone could send such a blanket
form letter as an answer to my specific problem" her next e-mail
began--sent directly to Steve Case.  "I would appreciate having this
matter solved as soon as possible," she added "as it is causing me a great
deal of distress."

"I am writing to you on behalf of Steve Case regarding your email about," 
read the response from  It ended in mid-sentence. 

"I am sending this back to you so that your highly trained professional
staff can finish answering my mail properly," her next reply began.  "This
is my third correspondence with this office on this issue and I have not
heard a response back to the concerns expressed in my second letter... 
This is an important matter, dealing with money and my livelihood, so
please respond ASAP."  

"I'm responding to your message for Steve Case..."  his office replied. 
"[O]nce a message is answered we delete the original message. Please
re-send your message stating your concern or problem and I'll get it

Did the problem really affect her livelihood?  "I would say having a rent
check bounce would qualify as such," she told the AOL List.  By Monday,
the situation had deteriorated.  "I have gotten more letters claiming that
they don't owe me any money for the AOL computer's malfunction. I have
talked to the Fairfax County, Virginia Small claims court division, and am
presently putting together my case." 

It could be worse.  "My request to change over to the $19.95/month flat
rate was somehow misconstrued by AOL as $215.00/year paid in advance," a
subscriber in New York told the AOL List.  "Attempts to reach AOL on-line
were useless..."  He called American Express, who removed the charges from
his statement.

But it wasn't over.  "Yesterday I received a notice from American Express,
stating that AOL stands by its claim that I requested a full year's
subscription in advance (which I cannot afford), charged the $195.45 back
to my American Express account, and gave the AOL 800 number to straighten
things out myself."  He reached an AOL operator--after 14 minutes on hold. 
"She said the computers were down at AOL accounting and would not be back
up for at least five hours."  The operator told him he'd be called when
the computers came back up.  "This was six days ago," they 
commented today.  "I am still awaiting their call." 

It's a long-standing tradition.  "The customer is not always right at
AOL," Barry Crimmins told Congress in 1995.  "As a matter of fact, the
customer is generally ignored or dismissed with an impenetrable
bureaucracy and treated as if they are impertinent and a petty bother in
the process."  The children's rights activist was reporting on
child-pornography trading.  "Time constraints preclude me from including
much of the printed documentation of my correspondence with AOL in this
oral testimony. But I have made copies of some of the more telling
exchanges for distribution to the committee and the press. In particular I
ask that you review the 17 questions in Attachment C. that I sent to AOL's
media relations director Pam McGraw and the woefully inadequate response I
received from her."  ( 

Identical complaints came in 1996.  "I get tired of getting canned
responses to letters to 'write to staff'  or other areas when
communicating to AOL," one user complained on the AOL Insider bulletin
board in December. "Frequently, someone seems to read the first line and
choose the 'canned message' without reading the entire message...and sends
an inappropriate response that does not address the issue at hand."  

Days later, that bulletin board had vanished--and complaints received the
same canned response.

But there's more to the story.  "FIX AOL!!!!!!" a subscriber named Vorlon5
had demanded on the board.  Another poster observed, "For the last three
days it has taken at least 1.5 to 2 hours to sign on."  And negative
comments continued.  "I tried no less than 30 times tonight to get in." 
"On Dec 30, I spent over 2 hours trying to sign on."  "December 29, 1996,
I spent 26 minutes on-line and every site I visited never connected."  One
reader noted that in just over a week, thousands of complaints were

Then it took an ominous turn.  "All the bitching in the world won't help," 
one poster concluded.  "AOL will continue on provided we continue to stay
here."  So Vorlon5 created a petition demanding reliable service.  He
circulated the 9-line statement to fellow complainers on the board, urging
them to pass it on. "If our demands are not met we will be forced to
cancle our accounts." 

The grass-roots protest received an overwhelming response.  One copy
received by the AOL List contained nearly 1500 names--and Vorlon said he
had seen over 100,000.  His petition was even cited in news coverage of
AOL's problems, including national papers like Newsday and USA Today. 
( ) 

One line may have sealed the board's fate.  "For an example of how bad
service has been please go to keyword: AOL INSIDER and look at the new
message board," the petition offered.  

Within days, the board had been removed from AOL. 

And they laid the blame on Vorlon.  When one loyal reader wrote in to ask
when the board would return, they received this reply:  "Due to the
petitions that were being driven from names from the boards, for members
security, we had to remove the boards unfortunately from the abuse this
caused. Thanks for writing." 

The claimed threat to member security left unanswered questions.  "What
would a worst-case scenario be vis-a-vis the board's security?" I wrote to
the AOL Insider (who identifies themself as "Meg").  Did the content of
the petition affect the decision--or was it solely and exclusively
security concerns.  Were any members reprimanded for their collection of
names?  Were there alot of complaints about the board's absence?  And what
day was the board taken down?

Days later, I got my response. "Due to the petitions that were being
driven from names from the boards, for members security, we had to remove
the boards unfortunately from the abuse this caused.  Thanks for writing." 

It was signed "Meg's Mail Elf." 

Users had no recourse.  I contacted some of the board's original
posters--and received a mixture of responses.

	"That was wrong." 

	"We can bitch till we turn blue, it won't speed up the solution 
	 to the problems.  I say Cancel, Cancel, Cancel." 

	"I didn't realize they closed that board!  I haven't been able 
	 to log on..." 

Meanwhile, members of the press challenged the whole concept of an AOL
Insider. "What a cruel joke," wrote the San Francisco Examiner's Rob
mMorse. "No one's an insider at AOL. The whole idea is that it's a loose, 
badly functioning way for outsiders to think they are part of something."

AOL's responses leave users dissatisfied.  "In all my years online I have
never had poorer service than with AOL," the New York subscriber told the
AOL List.  "I'm stuck on AOL because they have use of my American Express
credit account and have already charged me for the entire year--although I
had no intention of staying on AOL for a year before I had a chance to see
what service was like under the $19.95 flat fee."  His conclusion?  It's a
scam.  "I think their ploy is 'if we don't answer the customers calls then
they can't close out their account'."

At least some anger at the company is being focussed.  An $80 million
dollar lawsuit has been filed against AOL, alleging bad faith and breach
of agreements, according to the Baltimore Sun.  The paper reports that
Baltimore disk-packager PTP Industries has filed a 10-count lawsuit,
responding to AOL's defenses by charging defamation and negligent
misrepresentation of the company's performance.

New details are emerging about their relationship.  The Sun finds a figure
of over 170 million disks shipped hidden in the company's court
documents-- and last Friday the Wall Street Journal reported PTP shipped
150 million floppy disks just in 1996.  The Sun also noted that the firm
had facilities in Texas and Nebraska (which also closed as a result of the
delinquent AOL accounts). The packager's spokesman told the paper they'd
purchased $6.2 million in new equipment to service AOL.  "The consequence
of AOL's wrongful actions has been the complete destruction of PTP." 

Could the next stop be the destruction of ISPs?  Jack Rickard, the editor
of Boardwatch magazine, notes that AOL's service problems buttress calls
for phone company rate hikes on ISPs.  

In the magazine's March issue, he calls AOL's move to flat-rate pricing "a
fatal and irrecoverable error," predicting access will not improve,
thousands will defect, and the money spent on modems will break the
company. ( )  But he also notes
that telephone companies are currently lobbying the FCC to make internet
service providers pay per-minute access charges for the use of their phone
lines, saying the length of calls to ISPs clog phone networks.  Their
statistics are "self serving," Rickard writes--"the longer data calls are
both statistically minuscule against the number of voice calls and
completely avoid peak calling periods for voice."  But he points to the
line-hoarding caused by AOL's access problems.  "In Washington state, this
really did cause some serious problems with the voice telephone network. 
First, the line hoarding went on all day, including during peak voice
periods. Second, incompleted calls that result in busy signals DO burden
the system."

It reached the highest levels.  The magazine published communication
between the Vice President of U.S. West in Seattle and the chairman of the
Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.  "The number of calls
attempted over this trunk group for the week of January 5, 1997 was over
650,000 compared to 340,117 in September," the phone company wrote.  "The
number of calls nearly doubled in just four months."  He concluded that
the regulator "needs to examine its pricing policies in light of these new
issues and work with the industry to develop solutions...industry journals
indicate this is a nationwide problem."

Rickard sees a different culprit.  "I'm pretty certain the level of call
increase he is reporting is primarily, if not nearly totally, reflective
of busy signal calls that were never answered -- not normal ISP traffic
that contained long data calls.  And it almost totally corresponds to the
AOL situation on the timeline."  

But customers are left to sort out AOL's problems.  Many feel their
responses have been inadequate, and individual users feel they could do a
better job.  Even Vorlon5.  He offered the AOL List a fool-proof solution
in January.  "They should have spent the 250 million dollars upgrading
thier system before they offered the new flatrate price." 


In its two weeks of existence, the AOL Insider board had its share of
problems.  "Share your exuberance or apprehension," read one topic...

"This board is full," read the response when you tried.  "Cannot create

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Last week a poster identified themself as David Cassel,, and sent a post to the AOL List's mail server. 

The server has been modified to prohibit unauthorized posts.  In the
future, posts signed Dave Cassel should come from Dave Cassel--who doesn't
know for a fact that AOL has puppy milk.

        David Cassel
        More Information - 

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