Feigning madness may help in breaking up with AOL

One user calls software a `tenacious fungus'

August 30, 2005|By Tom Zeller Jr. | Tom Zeller Jr.,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"Three years ago my brother died (officially missing, presumed dead - no death certificate)," wrote an anonymous contributor last week at gripe2ed .com, a consumer complaint Web log. "At that time I was able to cancel his credit card, gas, insurance - everything except his AOL account."

It seems that America Online Inc., not entirely irrationally, needed a screen name and other account information to cancel the subscription - something this consumer, under the circumstances, did not have handy. Collection notices for payments past due soon followed.

"Maybe other people have resorted to faking death in order to get out of their AOL accounts?"

Probably not, but last Wednesday the office of the New York attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, announced that it had reached a settlement with America Online, which is owned by Time Warner Inc. The agreement requiring AOL to "remove obstacles consumers face when seeking to switch or cancel service" suggests that breaking up with AOL, which admits to no wrongdoing in the matter, is hard to do.

As part of the settlement, the company must pay refunds to disgruntled New York subscribers, $1.25 million in fines and costs to the state and stop providing incentives to customer service representatives who generate "saves" by talking subscribers, sometimes relentlessly, out of canceling their accounts.

Nicholas J. Graham, a spokesman for America Online, said in an statement sent by e-mail that the company was "pleased to have reached agreement" with Spitzer, and that new customer service practices would "assist with the verification of certain member intentions online."

Whether the agreement will stick remains to be seen. After all, smooth-talking "retention specialists" are a staple of corporate customer service everywhere (Monster.com, the classified jobs board, lists thousands of openings). America Online's settlement with Spitzer comes after a scuffle with the Federal Trade Commission in 2003 over similar charges, and an agreement with the Ohio attorney general in June to give refunds to customers there for improperly billing after cancellations.

Whatever the long-term outcome, the challenges apparently being faced by some users seeking to quit America Online have fed a healthy subgenre of cybergriping and online solution-sharing for years. And while faking one's death or feigning lethal madness (see below) might go well beyond the necessary, the following excerpts do suggest a communication gap in which both company and consumer share some of the blame.

May 18, 2004

Posted at tinmanic.com

I was beginning to worry that AOL cancellation was really a myth and that they actually didn't have a cancellation process and that I'd get stuck in AOL purgatory or they'd threaten to kill my firstborn if I didn't keep my service.

But no. I managed to hold my ground and make it to the end of the obstacle course.

If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything - even cancel your AOL service.

Feb. 2, 2005

Posted at utterlyboring.com

I told them my house had burned down and I no longer had a computer. The customer service rep then suggested I keep the AOL service and use it at a library or a friend's house.

Feb. 15, 2003

Posted at cementhorizon.com

After 10 minutes on hold:

"Hello. Thank you for calling AOL customer service. My name is James. How can I help to make your online experience a magical one this morning?"

"Well, James, I would like to cancel my magical online account."

"Heh. OK. Let me just pull up your information. Can I have your reason for canceling service with AOL this morning?"

"I'm giving up the Internet. I'm moving to a commune in Minnesota, and they don't have access there."

"Wow! That's a first for me. That's a really? A commune? Wow! Why don't they have access?"

"Well, it just kind of runs counter to the whole belief system."

"And, so, what's the belief system?"

"Oh, you know, getting back to nature, Thoreau, eating lots of dairy. Except the vegans, obviously."

"Right. Right. Right. Look, are you sure about this commune?"

"Oh, yes."

"OK. OK. There's no checkbox for this in my `Reason for Cancellation' section. Just, OK, well, I have your cancellation number ready. And look, if you change your mind, you can always reactivate your account, OK?"

"Sure, thanks."

"You know, I'm not going to even bother asking if you want to try our new phone news service."

"That's probably best."

April 20, 2003

Posted at blog.megacity.org

I don't know what the big deal was. I'll admit I had to sit on the phone for half an hour until a customer rep came on the line, but I just told her that I was getting rid of my computer because I couldn't keep my kids from looking at porn. I was off the phone in 2 minutes.

May 13, 2005

Posted at j-walkblog.com

My sisty signed up for AOL and had me help her get rid of it. Canceling the service wasn't that hard, we had the bank stop the payments. The hard part was getting their damn software off. It's like some kind of tenacious fungus that just won't die.

Aug. 24, 2005

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