Planning to leave America Online? Set aside a good chunk of
time, and be sure to monitor your credit-card statements
the summer of 2002, 24-year old Emily Geery accepted one of
the ubiquitous free trial offers of online service from America
Online. When the proffered three-month free membership expired,
she called to cancel the service but was persuaded to remain
for an additional three months. She says she didn’t want it,
but the AOL representative was persuasive, and after all,
it was free.
September, when Emily was leaving from her New Mexico home
for Costa Rica to work as a Peace Corps volunteer, she called
AOL again to cancel her service but was badgered about her
reasons. “They asked me about 10 times why I wanted to cancel,
and somehow going to a developing country where I wouldn’t
be able to use my free service wasn’t satisfactory,” she recalled.
Finally, they agreed to cancel the account, but that November
Emily discovered that her credit card was being charged despite
her rigorous efforts to end service in September.
explains the cancellation scenario she encountered: “When
I called to straighten it out, they refused to believe that
the service had ever been canceled, and I had no confirmation
number to prove it. I must have spoken with three or four
representatives before they finally agreed to nullify the
charges and cancel my service. They were difficult, and I
would never use their services again.”
Susan Nye of Clarksville was more than eager to share her
infuriating attempts to cancel AOL. Initially, Nye’s 15-year
old son signed on for free hours with his parents’ admonition
that he must cancel at the end of the allotted time or accept
responsibility for payment. He dutifully canceled before the
free hours were used.
Five months later, Susan took a careful look at her credit
card bill and noticed that AOL had charged her for each of
the five months after cancellation. She immediately contacted
them. “Oh, no problem,” the representative told her. “We’ll
credit your account.” The next month, her card did not reflect
the credit. She called again and was told again, “Oh, I’m
so sorry. They never logged it in. I’ll do it for you.” The
next month, no credit again. After at least two more fruitless
calls during which she had to retell the entire story, she
finally canceled by fax and letter.
Then, Nye went to the top. She wrote a detailed letter to
AOL’s CEO and expressed her frustration. “I told him how this
was poor service and said I will never do business with AOL
again, and I’ll make sure everyone I talk to knows about this.”
Within days someone from the company called her. “He was very
polite and very apologetic. He said the company would be talking
to the cancellation representatives to give them a reprimand,”
she says. He also told her that “the CEO really wants to prevent
issues like this from happening.” While Nye was impressed
with the prompt response, she was not completely convinced
of AOL’s sincerity. “There’s a method to their madness,” she
The experiences of Geery and Nye are not unique. It seems
that, short of dying, there’s nothing America Online considers
a valid reason for its customers to terminate service.
Stanley Hadsell of Troy is not shocked to hear these cancellation
story nightmares because he has seen the AOL machine from
the inside. In 1998, he worked as a technician in their Albuquerque
part of Costa Rica don’t you understand? Emily Geery.
Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen
enjoyed working in the call center, where 1,000 people filled
the room, one half devoted to cancellation calls and the other
to technical assistance, each employee fitted with headphones
and a computer. Working conditions were good. Perks were earned
depending upon performance and a willingness to be “gung ho.”
The company gave T-shirts to employees who met basic goals,
and senior employees were rewarded with stock options for
higher levels of performance. Hadsell says he regretfully
left his job after four months due to family matters.
The cancellation portion of the call center in Albuquerque
is called the “save department.” Although any employee could
effect a cancellation, customers are always funneled to the
save department, to the specially trained save employees.
Due to the sheer volume of callers to the center, for either
cancellation or technical support, the customer is put on
hold for an extended period, which can make the process time-consuming.
Many people just give up before their calls are answered.
Employees earn a cubicle in the save department only after
an extensive training period in customer persuasion. They
are taught role-playing and other techniques to encourage
people to stay connected, and they are authorized to offer
inducements such as two or three free months of service. “They
never wanted you to talk about canceling to the customer who
wanted to cancel,” Hadsell explained. Another trick AOL employs
is reactivating the account the minute someone signs back
in, sometimes a family member who is not aware of the cancellation.
Then the cancellation process begins all over again.
Hadsell recalled that some representatives were nicer to the
customer than others. “AOL allows a wide range of freedom
in how employees represent the company. Some people would
be in their own little world inside that cubicle. I would
walk by and listen to how people were being very sweet and
kind, and in the next cubicle sarcastic and mean. It depends
on the person.” Bonuses are duly awarded. For example, an
employee with a high save rate could be rewarded with a trip
After seven years as an America Online customer, Hadsell decided
to switch to a competing Internet service because he felt
it was more integrated with his Macintosh. His story is uncannily
familiar: “I thought I had canceled,” he recalls. “I didn’t
pay attention to my bank statement and missed that for two
months they had continued to bill me. I called and said, ‘This
is my third time calling. I canceled but I’m still being billed.’
The save rep was hostile. No record existed of my prior cancellation.
I told him, ‘You’re not going to ‘save’ me because you’ve
pissed me off. End my account right now.’ He gave me my cancellation
number so fast I didn’t get it. I asked him to repeat it and
he became more hostile. I asked for a written confirmation,
which I received a week later. I feel it is my personal duty
to convince people to quit AOL. I felt like they were devious.”
To this day he keeps his cancellation records, just in case.
Others interviewed for this article expressed similar frustration,
outrage, and feelings of being assaulted by the rude and coercive
tactics of the AOL phone representatives.
No federal or state laws are in place that specifically address
the behavior of Internet service providers; however, New York
state law prohibits fraudulent and deceptive business practices.
General Business Law, Article 22-A, section 349 states: “Deceptive
acts or practices in the conduct of any business, trade or
commerce or in the furnishing of any service in this state
are hereby declared unlawful.” Although the legal teeth exist
to prevent deceptive behavior commonly exhibited by AOL, so
far, the company has been able to elude state controls.
Brad Maione, a spokesman for the office of New York State
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, says the office receives complaints
on a regular basis from people who have experienced difficulties
when they tried to cancel their AOL membership. “A lot of
AG’s around the country have had a lot of chatter in this
regard,” he adds. Maione would not comment specifically on
any cases Spitzer is now working on, but confirmed they are
aware of this specific problem.
In May 2003, state Sen. George Maziarz (R-North Tonawanda)
sponsored S. 4994 on behalf of Spitzer. According to a spokesman
in Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno’s office, the bill
stated that when a company offers a free-trial period for
its services, the company must terminate the services at the
end of the free period unless the company receives a written
request from the customer to continue the service. The bill
passed in the Senate but not in the Assembly, where it did
not move out of committee.
of the belly of the beast: Stanley Hadsell.
Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen
to Kelly Simon, legislative director for Assemblywoman Audrey
Pheffer (D-Queens), the bill required what is known as a double
affirmative. Assembly members met with lobbying groups who
were opposed to the bill because they claimed it required
the customer to give double consent, once when accepting a
free offer, then again if the customer decides to continue
with the service or membership. Simon explains that the lobbying
groups, who represent businesses that use free offers as a
marketing tool, want the Assembly to fine-tune the bill to
eliminate the double-consent requirement. They prefer that
a company notify consumers when the free-trial offer ends
at which time they can opt out, Simon says.
Members of the Assembly and Senate have yet to iron out these
subtle differences. Although the bill has not been formally
reintroduced yet, Simon says she expects that it will, and
that once again, Pheffer will sponsor the bill in the Assembly.
Maione says the attorney general is considering reintroducing
S. 4994 for the 2005 legislative session.
Bob Sparks, a spokesman for Florida Attorney General Charles
Crist, says his office has received 134 calls concerning problems
with AOL, but he did not know how many dealt with cancellation
problems. Chapter 501 of Florida law prohibits unfair and
deceptive trade practices. Sparks said when the attorney general
receives a complaint, someone from the office contacts the
consumer representative with the company accused of deceptive
behavior and asks them to “take appropriate action to satisfy
the customer.” Although Sparks says he is aware of problems
with AOL, he was not aware of the magnitude.
Litigation is familiar terrain to AOL, even if it has not
led the corporation to change in its business practices. On
the Web site www.cancelrefund.com, a description of pending
lawsuits is aptly titled Welcome to the AOL Cancellation
Settlement Website. Two class-action lawsuits against
AOL deal specifically with cancellation problems. In Clough
v. AOL and Mendoza v. AOL, it is alleged that when subscribers
attempted to cancel their subscriptions as outlined in the
terms of service, AOL sometimes “failed to process the cancellation
request or reactivated the subscription after the cancellation
as a result of a third party, such as a family member or friend,
used the account without authorization.” According to the
Web site, AOL denies the allegations, but in an effort to
avoid the expense of litigation, it agreed to settle and paid
the $3 million in plaintiff’s attorney’s fees. The settlement
promises up to four months of refunds at $21.95 a month for
customers who completed the required forms by the December
Jon Sorensen, a spokesman for the New York State Consumer
Protection Board, says that half of the complaints he has
received regarding AOL have addressed cancellation of service.
People have filed complaints with the board when requests
to cancel their account were ignored, and AOL continued to
charge them. The board has been successful in obtaining refunds
for those customers. “Our consumer assistance unit will file
on the consumer’s behalf a request for a refund, which AOL
should have listened to in the first place,” he explains.
Susanna Montezemolo, a policy analyst at Consumers Union in
Washington, D.C., advocates for people primarily in telecommunication
and media issues. Consumers Union is the nonprofit publisher
of Consumer Reports. She says that consumer protection
laws are regulated by the state, and that people who feel
wronged by a business should complain to their state attorney
general, their congressmen and state senators. She concedes,
however, that “in the present Congress, it’s difficult to
get anything passed that’s good for consumers.”
Montezemolo acknowledges that AOL has a strong market share
as it successfully sells itself as the simplest ISP to use.
However, “A customer has the right to cancel if they want
to,” she flatly states.
The aggressive marketing techniques AOL uses have become a
more prevalent problem in the larger telecommunications marketplace.
“The telecom marketplace consists of these big companies with
a lot to gain and individual consumers who don’t complain,”
Montezemolo laments. “They just pay. It’s just easier to stay
with AOL. It’s the little guy versus the big company.”
Further, the shrinking competition in today’s marketplace
is disastrous for the consumer. Montezemolo points out that
98 percent of Americans have access to only one cable company.
Complaints lodged with the Consumer Protection Board confirm
that telecommunication problems exist across the board. Sorensen
says he receives complaints ranging from billing, service
and “everything in between” for cable television, cell-phone
companies and other telecom industries. One complaint that
has repeatedly crossed his desk involves a satellite television
service that requires the customer to retrieve a small tubular
device, which is part of the satellite dish, which is often
located on the rooftop, and return it to the company. Only
upon receipt of this obscurely placed piece of equipment will
the company cancel service. Cell-phone complaints include
customers stating that they are being billed for services
they never ordered. Also, people are riled up about the hefty
cancellation fees for early termination of cell-phone service—even
if the reason for canceling is due to poor or misrepresented
service. But in the end, Sorensen says, the style of cancellation
hurdles created by AOL seems to be unique.
In mid-December, CU launched its new Web site, www.hearusnow.org,
to assist people who are frustrated specifically with telecom
companies. It’s a grassroots-oriented site developed to inform
people about current policies, and why they should pay attention
to mergers that will ultimately affect their financial well
being. The site has “take action” suggestions that encourage
people to write to the Federal Communications Commission.
According to Montezemolo, “When a lot of people write and
lodge an official complaint, it makes a difference. The more
attention consumers can bring to these issues, the greater
the chance of change either through legislation or through
negative publicity about the company exhibiting bad business
Although some effort has been made to reign in AOL’s aggressive
business practices, they continue. Those most affected by
these tactics are customers who don’t have the stamina to
withstand the persuasive and abusive practices of the save
department, or who don’t think to review their credit-card
statements. Others stay connected simply because they don’t
have the time to remain on the phone justifying their reasons
for canceling. Then there are the elderly, many of whom may
be new to the Internet, who remain connected. In Florida,
for example, 17 percent—2,900,000—of 17 million residents
are age 65 and older. Many are vulnerable to the practiced
techniques of the AOL save representatives.
Back in the AOL call-center cubicles, a failed cancellation,
or “save,” is celebrated. The customer may hang up the phone
angry and frustrated, but the representative can begin packing
his bags for the sunny sands of Acapulco. “You’ve got mail”
never had quite such a hollow ring.
Attempts to elicit a response from AOL were met with a “No
comment” from its Virginia headquarters, and an offer of free
membership from the call center.
Got Your Info—and So Do the Hackers
America Online’s cancellation practices have got some members—and
soon-to-be ex-members—fuming, many tech-savvy members of the
digital generation say that this is the tip of the iceberg
when it comes to the questionable practices at AOL. Despite
having one of the largest membership tallies of any Internet
service provider, AOL is on the bottom of the heap when it
comes to protecting those members from the dangers of Internet
The frequency with which AOL members’ personal information
is stolen, sold or illegally altered in some way has achieved
a legendary status among Internet security geeks. According
to a February 2003 article in Wired magazine (“Hackers
Run Wild and Free on AOL”), gaining access to AOL members’
personal information can be as easy as making a phone call
and impersonating a flirty teenage girl or pretending that
you’re recovering from jaw surgery.
had no info except the screen name, then I called [the AOL
support center] and got the first name and last name by saying,
‘Could you repeat what I just said?’” explained a hacker going
by the name of hakrobatik.
Of course, hackers haven’t shied away from putting their fingers
to keyboards in order to get a look at AOL members’ account
information, either. The same Wired article describes
a situation that developed earlier in 2003 in which hackers
gained access to AOL’s customer database—and the personal
information of more than 35 million users—simply by pestering
AOL employees via the company’s Instant Messenger service.
According to ex-employees and other computer professionals
cited in the article, a policy that favors quiet, public-relations-friendly
resolution over prosecution has ensured that similar incidents
receive little mainstream media attention.
General Eliot Spitzer’s office: (800) 771-7755
Consumer Protection Board: (800) 697-1220
AOL cancellation: (888) 265-8008
AOL Headquarters: (703) 265-1000
Consumers Union: www.hearusnow.org
State senators: www.senate.state.ny.us
State assemblymen: ssembly.state.ny.us