AOL Watch: April's Fools

David Cassel (
Fri, 10 Apr 1998 17:41:36 -0700 (PDT)

			 A p r i l ' s   F o o l s


In March AOL Watch uncovered bounties -- sometimes as high as $6-per-head
-- paid to customer service agents who convince AOL's customers not to
cancel their accounts.  ( )  Just
days later, the Washington Post reported on AOL's plan for a "broad
internal campaign" to address subscriber concerns (noting that some
critics "charge that AOL's telephone agents make it difficult for users to
cancel their accounts...")

The Washington Post cites a subscriber whose request to cancel AOL
"repeatedly was ignored by customer-service representatives," as AOL
continued billing for seven months -- and then offered a refund for only
$29.85 of the $99.50 charges. 

The paper notes the 66-year-old woman eventually did receive a full refund
-- only after inquiries from a reporter! 

AOL assured the paper they were committed to their users -- but
subscribers don't buy it. "I've seen the lack of empathy AOL exhibits
towards its customer base," one Wired News reader complained, citing an
"overreaching marketing team with no concept of its customers' true
needs."  ( ) 

AOL is even having trouble providing basic services like e-mail.  Their
system status reports showed that for nearly four hours early Monday
morning, "Up to 5% of mail was unavailable at any given time due to
periodic system maintenance."  It's not the first time.  After nationwide
outages in January, February, and March, Bloomberg News reported that on
March 26, nearly 25% of AOL's members couldn't access e-mail!

A company spokesman told the news service AOL had kept outages to 
3 percent of running time in 1997 -- though this mid-day problem lasted
almost 20 minutes.  A subscriber complained about the same problem a month
earlier -- and received a response from Steve Case's office.  "We hope you
understand that we have been in a period of transition," it rationalized,
since the move to flat-rate pricing "in December 1996."
( ) 

As AOL enters its 17th month of "transition", dial-up customers are now
expected to pay an additional $2.00 per month.  (Though in this month's
1800-word Community Update, Steve Case avoided any mention of the price
hike.)  At the same time, "Logging onto America Online during the day
could become more difficult," TechWeb writes, "now that the service
provider has unleashed AOL Enterprise, designed to lure employees of major
corporations onto the network between 9 and 5."

Unfortunately, with an ongoing track record of problems, it may be hard
for AOL to attract businesses.  Wired News reported corporate customers
"demand comprehensive service agreements, guaranteed bandwidth and network
availability" -- and an industry analyst observed AOL "has been very bad
at that..."  ( ) 
Now AOL's problems are even affecting celebrities.  Rosie O'Donnell uses
AOL for her talk show's "Interactive Mondays" -- but according to the
show's e-mail newsletter, she had to cancel the March 23 edition "due to
AOL technical difficulties." 

Even technology columnists are becoming increasingly cynical about AOL's
search for profits -- including the managing editor of ZDNet's AnchorDesk,
who wrote that "considering the lousy job it is doing being an online
access company (the service is back up after another outage...), AOL is
wise to look around for alternative revenue streams."
( )  Chris Stamper,
a reporter for, reacted angrily when AOL sent Tel-Save's
customers e-mail urging them to sign up their friends.  "I sent the
message to the TOS SPAM complaint department," he told AOL Watch, "along
with the rest of the day's junk mail."  Stamper had previously written
about AOL's victory against one spammer on their ten most-wanted list. 
("Does this mean Tel-Save gets that empty slot?" he asked.) 

One subscriber attempting to research the long-distance service's offer
says they received a discouraging message from AOL's software:  "We're
sorry, you do not have access to this area."  But another customer claims
they were switched to Tel-Save without being asked!  "How dare AOL take
the liberty to change MY carrier WITHOUT MY PERMISSION!!!" she wrote in
an angry e-mail to Steve Case.  "If I had WANTED to change long distance
carriers, obviously I would have done so..."

She soon encountered another facet of AOL's customer service.  While she
attempted to switch back to her original long-distance, Steve Case's
office refused to help her!  "America Online operates the same way a
newspaper or magazine does," his staff replied, "in that it does not have
direct control over the vendors that offer products online.  If there is a
problem with a service, the member must contact that vendor to voice their

Then they gave her a phone number which returned the following message. 
"We're sorry. Your call cannot be completed as dialed..." 

A second e-mail returned a second phone number -- which also gave the same
message.  ("I hope I have been of service to you," the form letter
concluded, "and thank you for using America Online.")  In a third round of
e-mail, Steve Case's office replied that "we encourage you to look for
help online first, which in many cases will save you time....  Please let
us know if we can offer any additional assistance."  Ultimately the
subscriber located the appropriate phone number -- herself.  ("I'm sure
your reps could have found out the same information," she wrote in a
fourth e-mail, "but all you could do was pass along stupid form letters.") 

Then she cancelled her account -- after six years on AOL.  "This whole
mess has proven to me, once again, that your attitude toward customer
service comes from some archaic notion that your customers are stupid,"
she wrote in her final message -- leaving AOL with a warning.  "A service
company's reputation is made or broken upon the strength of it's customer
service department.  Apparently that little truism has not broken through
to AOL yet, and I doubt it ever will."  
( ) 

There no indication if other customers had their long-distance carrier
switched -- but at least one AOL customer service representative isn't
confident.  They told AOL Watch "I will bet you lunch that they get into a
'slamming' incident with the FCC before it is over..." 

So why aren't more customers cancelling their accounts?  When speaking to
the Washington Post, AOL acknowledged a long-suspected secret:  their
phone reps issue refunds to customers who complain.  One cancelling
subscriber told AOL Watch they weren't surprised when they received a free
month -- "This is my third one!"  In fact, the refunds are apparently
offered in response to many complaints.  ("What you said about getting
FREE time because of pop up ads is true..." one AOL Watch reader confided,
"but it can also be done for ANY reason -- same result, FREE TIME...") 
They'd seen an opportunity, and planned to deliberately seek out credits.
"I am telling all my friends to tell all their friends -- and so on -- to
'cancel' AOL on April 1.  A little April Fool's joke for ol' Steve Case to
ponder..."  At least one customer service rep has told AOL Watch it wasn't
confined to April 1...  "Already people are calling up feigning being
upset, like, 'Yeah, yeah, just give me my free months!'..." 

Still, many other cancellations are legitimate.  "After almost 7 years, on
April 15th I'm pulling the plug on AOL," one AOL Watch reader wrote. 
On-line enthusiasts find better alternatives waiting.  "As a recent
graduate from America Online, your new EarthLink Network membership
affords you a real treat," reads EarthLink's "Guide for AOL Graduates" --
"true, unhindered, and FAST access to all the resources of the Internet,
access you never had as an AOL member." 

AOL users who don't want to pay the new $2.00-per-month surcharge to
continue dialing in to AOL -- an additional $24 each year -- can easily
switch to a local internet service, where they'll often find better
performance.  "Originally, AOL's network was not designed to allow access
to the much larger Internet," EarthLink's guide notes, "and so, while it
is possible now to use AOL to reach the Internet, AOL's strength remains
the content of their self-contained network." 

Earthlink has launched a "Get Out of AOL Free" campaign, waiving their  
normal $25 set-up fee for AOL refugees -- and hundreds of AOL refugees are
joining EarthLink every week!  (Ready to try a net connection? 
<A HREF="">Click Here</A>!) 

Ironically, it's not just difficult to cancel your AOL account.  Though
AOL's Chief Operating Officer gloated that AOL's users now spend an
average of 50 minutes a day online, for some that's also non-consensual. 
Wednesday one user attempting to sign-off was told "Due to heavy traffic,
this feature is temporarily unavailable." 

"Many share your interest in this area," the warning continued.  "Please
try again later." 

Two other AOL Watch readers reported the same problem -- but with a
different message:  "Pardon the delay, this feature is temporarily closed
for maintenance or improvements."  "How in the hell would AOL perform
maintenance on the 'Close' button?" one asked.  The other subscriber
attempted to call customer service -- only to be told no operators were
available to take their call.  Repeated attempts to leave AOL returned the
same messages -- much to their chagrin. 

"The closing of AOL is one of the best features!" 

With all the customers leaving, the only people left may be AOL's on-line
"underground". Two self-identified hackers named Hex and Glaze have been
inserting their names into various pieces of AOL's content.  (Last October
they struck seven areas in one night: )
Now they've apparently left AOL's subscribers an Easter egg.  Clicking the
"Help & Info" button on the Member directory (located under the "Members"
menu) displays searching instructions -- but it's currently giving
subscribers a very suspicious example...

Boolean searches will "only finds profiles which contain BOTH words" the
window advises users.  Its example?  " 'Hex AND Glaze' will only find
profiles containing both 'Hex' and 'Glaze'."

This latest problem is especially ironic, since AOL recently tried to beef
up security to prevent content hacks.  "Given AOL's reticence about such
matters, I wasn't surprised when no one responded to a query on this
subject," a reporter for Yahoo! Internet Life wrote. 
A hacker web page offered their own analysis.  "Young teenagers easily
outsmart adults paid to work for America Online." 
( ) 

As if that weren't enough, AOL's users report trouble with other
departments, too.  One disgruntled subscriber used their member profile to
hammer a single theme:  AOL's terms of service.  They listed their hobby
as "Trying to figure out what words and phrases are non offensive to
everyone so that I am compliant with TOS."  But even they weren't immune
to AOL's profit-seeking.  AOL tacked an advertisement onto the
subscriber's angry profile.  Its message?  "Stand out from the crowd."

With the ongoing litany of subscriber complaints, AOL continues to insist
they're committed to their customers.  But they've also apparently
discovered the perfect symbol for their service. 

A balloon filled with hot air.,4,20950,00.html


AOL's policies have even discouraged their customer service staff, to the
point where some have contacted union organizers.  It's a stark contrast
to the happy picture seen in the Washington Post, which reported "casually
dressed colleagues toss beach balls or juggle beanbags even as they field

That may have been just for show.  One customer service staffer told AOL
Watch that "After the reporters left -- they confiscated our beach balls!" 

 David Cassel
 More Information -


    Please forward with subscription information.   To subscribe to this
    list, type your correct e-mail address in the form at the bottom
    of the page at -- or send e-mail to

    To unsubscribe from the list, send a message to MAJORDOMO@AOLWATCH.ORG
    containing the phrase UNSUBSCRIBE AOLWATCH.