My grandfather is 90 years old and moved to Mexico a few years ago; he has very poor eyesight and doesn't hear well, but he does use a computer and the Internet. When he got his new computer last year, a friend of his set it up for him and installed AOL.
Recently my mother went through his bank statements and discovered that a lot of money was being paid to AOL Time Warner every month, in what looked like duplicate charges. A closer look showed that $25.90 was being charged to his debit card four times a month. My grandfather doesn't use the AOL service and had no idea he was still paying for it, especially not paying for it four times a month.
Because he's in Mexico and has a difficult time hearing, it is a problem for him to call AOL, so when my mom and I became aware of what was happening, I called them. My call started out with an automated system that wanted me to enter account information, but my grandfather didn't know he had the account, so I didn't have that info. It was very difficult to get an operator on the line; I believe it took about fifteen 'bad responses' to the recorded messages before I was transferred to an India-outsourced customer support office.
Let me be clear that I'm not complaining about the India outsourcing -- I like talking to people in other countries, even if it is just for customer service.
I immediately identified myself as the customer's grandson, even though I could easily have pretended to be my grandfather. I wanted to be honest. I explained the situation, and was told that without speaking to my grandfather directly, no changes could be made to his account. I understand the rationale behind that, but there are all kinds of reasons a person might be unable to speak for his or herself, and I would have thought that AOL would have had a way to deal with these kinds of situations.
I told the representative that he would either have to speak to me, or I would have to call back and pretend to be my grandfather. He suggested instead that I get my grandfather's power of attorney, and offered to send me a form. I initially agreed, but I wasn't comfortable with the idea, not to mention that to get the form signed and submitted, it would cost about $70 in FedEx charges to send the paperwork to Mexico and have it returned to me, because the Mexican postal service is completely unreliable.
I was placed on hold while the representative looked at my grandfather's account, and he found that there had been four, identical accounts set up in his name and charged to the same card, a debit card that my grandfather hasn't used in several months because it was 'eaten' by an ATM machine. Apparently AOL has no safeguards in place to prevent people from accidentally setting up duplicate accounts, and the representative explained to me that it is very easy to set up an account by mistake. I've used AOL, and if anything is easy to do with their service, I have a hard time believing it isn't set up that way intentionally.
I explained to the representative that I would prefer not to have my grandfather's power of attorney, and I offered him two options that I thought would work better: either he could give me a phone number that was not toll-free, so my mother, who was visiting my grandfather at the time, could call AOL on her cell phone (she was unable to call toll-free numbers from Mexico for some reason) or I could give him her cell phone number and he could call her -- that way he could speak to my grandfather directly, and to my mother, who is also a signer on his bank account. The agent told me that there was no phone number for AOL other than the toll-free number, and that AOL could not call its customers.
I explained that this was ridiculous -- of course AOL has a phone number that isn't toll-free, and of course there is someone, somewhere at AOL who's allowed to make a phone call. He argued with me and insisted that I was wrong. I stated that I believed that he couldn't make a phone call, but that there was certainly someone higher up that was. I asked to speak to his supervisor; he tried to argue with me some more, and I finally had to tell him I didn't want to talk to him about it anymore, and to put his boss on. I was curt, but not rude, and I was sure to say please and thank you throughout the call.
I was placed on hold for a few minutes until the supervisor picked up the call. I explained the situation to her, and she repeated that AOL was unable to call customers. I repeated my explanation that this was an utterly ridiculous notion -- that there had to be someone at AOL with a fully functioning telephone. I asked to speak to her boss, and was told that her manager did not take calls. So basically, if a low level supervisor at AOL can't address your problem, there's no one else you can talk to.
I asked for a non-toll-free phone number for AOL, and the supervisor placed me on hold again to look for one. She returned with the phone number for AOL Mexico. I explained that we wanted AOL in the United States -- that even though my grandfather is living in Mexico, the account is a US account and bills to a US bank account and mailing address. She said that it wouldn't make a difference, and that the number would work if my mother dialed it from Mexico. I asked if the call would be in Spanish, because my mother's Spanish isn't very good, and was told that she would have the option of speaking to someone in English.
I thanked the supervisor and hung up, then called my mother and gave her the phone number; she called it and it was all in Spanish, which she was unable to understand enough of to proceed any farther. Now we're left with two options -- impersonate my grandfather, which is illegal, or pursue this through our bank's fraud division.
If I may, I'd like to give my take on AOL's business plan:
STEP 1: Create an inferior, difficult to use, unattractive, product.
STEP 2: Give that product away to as many people as possible, via CDs in the mail and in newspapers, and through agreements with computer manufacturers to include the software on the machines they sell.
STEP 3: Require customers to provide credit card information to activate the free product.
STEP 4: Make sure it's so easy to set up an account that people could do it by accident, especially people with low computer literacy, children, and the elderly.
STEP 5: Allow the product to be used for free just long enough for customers to become fed up with it and switch to one of any number of superior products, and forget that they need to cancel their AOL accounts.
STEP 6: Ensure that AOL has as little interaction with its customers as possible, so that customers not using the service won't be reminded that they need to cancel it. Do nothing to protect customers from accidentally setting up multiple accounts and receiving duplicate charges.
STEP 7: Make sure it's far more difficult to close an AOL account than it was to set it up, and ensure that the door is always left open for the account to be reinstated, even by accident.
STEP 8: Sit back and watch the millions roll in from people who don't even realize they're paying for a product that they never use.
How about this, Congress -- a law that requires companies like AOL to charge in advance for their services, so no one can be ripped off.
U.S.A. Click here to read other Rip Off Reports on AOL