The AOL List: Pillaging

David Cassel (
Mon, 8 Sep 1997 17:47:19 -0700 (PDT)

			P  i  l  l  a  g  i  n  g


"If getting CompuServe at AOL's price means getting AOL's on-line phone
help, it won't be much of a deal, because AOL phone help really sucks. 
The phone representatives are totally useless and rude..." 

An AOL subscriber posted their comments below a story on the Netly News --
in April, when rumors of an AOL-CompuServe merger first surfaced.
(,1012,793,00.html ) Five
months later, users question whether the U.S. Department of Justice will
approve a proposed acquisition of CompuServe's subscribers -- giving AOL
nearly 80% of the commercial on-line services market -- while analysts
ponder the subscribers' fate. "CompuServe subscribers tend to be
professionals or managers that for the most part are interested in the
reliability of the access and the forums that CompuServe offers," one
Jupiter Communications analyst told C|Net -- "neither of which have been
hallmarks of what AOL has provided.",4,14023,00.html  

This proposed acquisition would consolidate much of the commercial on-line
population under a single owner.  But CompuServe's subscribers would be
moving to an owner with a record of nationwide outages and busy
signals -- and a hidden record of exploitation. Public outcry against
telemarketing plans didn't stopped AOL from giving members unwanted
pitches.  At the end of their calls, customers who phone seeking technical
support are now urged to let AOL transfer the call to a CUC marketer. 
"Every time a member calls either the tech support or the billing queue,"
one subscriber complained to the AOL List, "the AOL employee to whom the
member is speaking is REQUIRED by AOL to attempt to transfer the member to
CUC International, where the member is hit with a heavy-duty sales pitch." 
Two test calls to Windows technical support -- spaced two weeks apart --
confirmed the complaint.  [1-888-265-8006.] "Before I let you go...."  one
support call ended Thursday. 

While they're chatting, some calls to technical support are turned away
for lack of an available representative. 

Callers even receive advertisements before they've connected to support
representatives. Three minutes into their "hold" music, AOL plays an ad
for a high-speed modem.  AOL has exploited captive audiences in the past
-- including, ironically, members calling to cancel their service.  "They
are our best prospects," Steve Case told reporters last September,
"because we know they have a modem."  At the time, AOL was picking up an
average of just 4400 members a day.  So AOL customer service
representatives were given incentives to talk customers out of cancelling
accounts. ( 
Subscribers hated it. "When I (finally) reach customer service to cancel
my account, I am forced to argue for a good 5 minutes with this customer
service representative that is trying so hard to salvage it!" one
user told the AOL List. 

They'd decided to cancel their account after service outages, unreliable
e-mail service, and AOL's "pathetic web browser" --but customer service
staffers had received scripted responses earlier that year for talking
customers out of cancelling.  "The problem is that telemarketing is
OUTBOUND," a former staffer told the AOL List.  "If someone calls an
inbound line to cancel, there should be no discussion.  Just cancel the
damn account!" 

Staffers were even urged to hit cancelling customers with a series of
intimidating questions about their ISP before accepting their
cancellation.  ("Are you expected to setup your IP addresses, mail
servers, news servers, and various other technical areas by yourself...?") 
"What right does AOL have to even justify itself in doing this?" the
former staffer told the AOL List -- shortly before leaving AOL's customer
service department altogether.  "By scaring people away from the Net like
this they deprive them of the best communications medium in history." 

CompuServe subscribers will face the same gauntlet when their service
changes owners.  It's an unmistakable result.  Callers seeking technical
support get commercials before, during, and after.  Ironically, the more
technical problems AOL has, the more advertising revenue their technical
support lines generate. 

Subscribers complain that even the quality of that support is declining. 
"The most disgusting thing is that AOL account and billing techs are
giving out a bad phone number -- to an office in Reston, Virginia," one
subscriber complained, "that is not an AOL-related office, but a credit
card approving center."  She said two AOL staffers directed her to Trans
Network Services, whose receptionist complained they'd been receiving AOL
calls for over two weeks.  "She has to take time to explain -- and she
does so -- but it disrupts her phone number and business!"  The
receptionist had said a complaint was filed with the Federal
Communications Commission.  "The woman is very nice, but after two weeks
of receiving calls from angry AOL customers, she is at her wit's end..."

"AOL is really going downhill," she concluded -- and another subscriber
agreed.  They told the AOL List that " 'A technician will call you back
soon' is one of their favorite lies!"

But AOL's new marketing ambitions affect nearly everyone.  Even users
without technical problems find pop-up ads when signing on.  AOL defended
the practice by saying they could be eliminated by members at keyword
Marketing Preferences.  But it doesn't always stop the ads.  "Three weeks
later, I'm still getting them," one subscriber complained to the AOL List. 
"Two e-mails to Steve Case asking how long it takes have been met with
replies that state 'Please go to keyword Marketing Preferences if you wish
to change your preferences.' Hello, Einsteins!!!!!!!"

Ultimately, even non-AOL subscribers are affected by AOL's passion for
marketing. Usenet posts complain that since at least last December, AOL
telemarketers have been phoning the country pitching AOL's service...

...and even books.  ( 
"Obviously AOL is not making money online," one call-recipient complained,
"and really IS taking this 'media' thing seriously."  After the latest
scandal about plans to sell customer phone numbers, AOL promised
telemarketing calls would come only from AOL staffers themselves.
( l) "Why did AOL ever think that
the customer discerns any difference in these two concepts?" one
subscriber complained.  "AS IF it's important to the customer that his
dinner is being interrupted by an AOL partner rather than any other

Yet AOL is moving aggressively to expand their pool of potential
advertising recipients -- despite questions about AOL's system capacity.
"They're not where they should be, by a long shot," an analyst told PC
Week last Monday .  "It still takes me a half hour to get on in the
evenings..." They warned that new marketing blitzes could create even more
delays.  ( )  Users
have found already found many ways around AOL's "inactivity warnings" --
including a software called Always Online.
But AOL continues their quest for subscribers.  "I live in New York City," 
an AOL List reader commented, "and for the last week or so, every
municipal bus that I've seen has an ad for AOL on the outside of the bus."

Indiscriminate marketing sometimes even intrudes on painful memories. "The
software used to load AOL was sent to my mother,"  another subscriber
complained, "who died two years previously--aged 82."  Complaints about
AOL's marketing have started to come from environmentalists.  "It's
aggressively wasteful advertising," the Green Money Journal told Business
Ethics Magazine ( ).  At
least one disgruntled subscribers retaliated by playing prank phone calls
on AOL's technical support staffers. ( 

Sometimes dissatisfaction boils over.  Wednesday the same prankster led a
guerilla assault on an on-line appearance by AOL's security chief. 
"Tatiana Gau is a recognized expert on security and integrity issues," the
Online Host announced, "and is in charge of protecting members from
illegal activities." 

"hehe," said CLiMaXGRiM 

"hhahahaya," said Conjurer.

The prankster -- from the hacker page "Inside AOL" -- had assembled 15 of
his friends.  Of 146 people, ten percent had come to harass.  As they
lurked in the audience, Gau told the audience that on-line security
involved common sense practices, and "I am here to make sure these
practices are made known to you." 

"I am here to tell ya about wat's happenin behind yer baks," CLiMaXGRiM
told his chat room row.  The "Inside AOL" page had already discovered how
to download AOL's proprietary 4.0 Beta.  ("Go to keyword aol://2707:22 and
download," they pointed out last week. "Simple.")  The tension exploded
when Gau told the audience that when someone breaks AOL's Terms of Service
"and we find out about it," action would be taken.  Within seconds, the
audience experienced a full-fledged chat room assault.

	"GO TO:," one trouble-maker

	"DONT LISTEN TO HER," another warned.  "TATIANA GAU IS LYING." 

They displayed the URL for a web page disputing Gau's claims of security. 
Over and over again.  The address
appeared over 128 times in just a few minutes.  "I got 108 hits to that
URL during the interview," the "Inside AOL" webmaster noted later.  The
"scrolling" of the text made it virtually impossible to watch the chat,
and was itself a Terms of Service violation -- though ironically, during
the chat one of Gau's duties was identified as protecting AOL's users from
on-line harassment.  Gau's introduction had used the phrase "recognized
expert"  twice. 

"Expert?" CLiMaXGRiM had responded.  "hehe." 

It could have been worse.  In at least one instance, attacks took the
stage of a celebrity appearance, and broadcast their comments to the
entire audience. ( 
A transcript of the chaos at the end of Gau's appearance is on-line at , since in the past, AOL's own
transcripts have been edited to present AOL in a more favorable light. 
(,1012,14,00.html )  In this
case, AOL's transcript of the event includes only Gau's remarks, without
any indication of the audience disruption.  Since last week, it has been
download just three times. 

Without the audience comments, the transcript is one-sided and
self-serving.  "A popular issue is pornography," one child-safety question
began.  "Unfortunately, pornography does exist," Gau responded, "on the
Internet...."  Gau said nothing about AOL's bawdy chat rooms or risque
photos at Heckler's Online--but in fact, the Inside AOL page had
discovered secret pornography stashes on AOL, and gleefully displayed
their addresses. ( )  "No matter
what age you are, your just not allowed to say 'bad words' on AOL," they
wrote, "but I guess AOL doesn't think this applies to them."

Even Ziff-Davis News took notice of the page's conflict with AOL.  ( ) Last week
they reported that "The site is being relaunched at a new Internet service
provider after AOL chased it out of two previous ISPs, according to Inside
AOL and America Online."  Closer examination raises the question:  is AOL
attacking the page for the embarassing nature of its content?

If this is war, they may be losing.  An attack on the TOS Advisor web page
at has gone uncorrected for over 11 days. ( )  In fact, disrepair permeates
the service.  Many of the links on their NameSearch page-- for instance
"iDOT Internet"  -- return the message "Not Found" when accessed.  
( )  One user decided the errors
had come from "the 12 year old boy who must have been writing this page."

What kind of service will AOL provide when they're managing CompuServe's
subscribers?  Several reporters are already wondering whether AOL, in the
absence of competition, will raise their rates to enhance cash-flow. AOL's
scramble for profitability has already resulted in the loss of many
content providers.  Now, in a play for more money, subscribers say AOL is
replacing the free game "Gemstone III" with a new $2.00-per-hour game
called "Magestorm".  "Even though the game is in open beta, you are still
being charged to play the game and do the dirty work for AOL and the
software developer by reporting bugs and glitches in the software."  One
AOL List reader forwarded the GameWiz newsletter, which they said spoke
philosophically of the area's closing.  "Throughout your life each of you
will run into this type of poor management," it read.  "You just have to
shake your head and move on."

But on-line services like AOL and CompuServe may already be losing their
relevance to internet service providers.  "General-interest consumer
services such as America Online and CompuServe still dominate the scene,
but 1996 and 1997 will be remembered as the years when Internet service
providers really made their mark on the market," a Cowles/Simba analyst
reported last month.  His research discovered a 3.5% drop in the share of
on-line revenue claimed by online services.


Will on-line service providers continue to lose revenue to their internet

Time will tell.


AOL's billing staffers adopt a glassy-eyed indifference to competition on
the web.  "Welcome to Billing Live!" one representative told an AOL
subscriber.  "My name is Candace, How can I help you today?" 

"I would like you to know that all of AOL's Premium Games are available
for FREE at Microsoft's," a subscriber replied.

"I usually don't have time to play," they responded, "but thanks.  Is
there anything I can help you with?" 

        David Cassel
        More Information -


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