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Technofile special: AOL's 800 number

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Technofile special: AOL's 800 number blues  

William Houze, Ph.D.

Copyright Ó1997 USNetWriters (

April 11, 1997

Tired of making little money over the past twelve-years as a cabinetmaker/carpenter, and needing steady cash for food and shelter for my teenage son and myself, I returned to my old trade of being a hack writer for hire.

 Making my decision was made somewhat easier because a former customer gave me a cheap but working computer she no longer wanted. For a while, I did nothing with it but write poems, get online occasionally with CompuServe, and watch my son play a few mindless games that bored him silly.

I was still a carpenter—I'd taken on a job of turning a barn into an artist's studio—but I was getting my fingers limbered up again as they'd once been back in the early eighties when I co-authored two books about Kaypro computers. So, feeling cyber-empowered and full of silicon once again like I had when I once lived the LA-life, I did what thousands before me have done: I signed up with AOL.

But there was more to my exuberance, for I signed up with CompuServe and AOL and Prodigy, such was my headlong rush to get back into the Valley of Sand and make a buck or two.

Then, back in early November, I finally decided to get out of the shop entirely. So I sold my major possession, my Powermatic 66, put my beloved Stanley 45 back in its dovetailed oak box, and drove my work van in to Sears to pick out my new tools.

An hour later, I was the proud owner of a suite of machinery that any ancient Greek mathematician or poet would have loved: a 133 MHz Pentium Packard Bell mini-tower, a Cannon BJC-240 bubble jet color printer, and a high-resolution color monitor with speakers attached like ears. It was the entire workbench package, including even the new shop mouse.

Looking back on it now, I can say with certainty that that's when my struggle with the Dark Side of the Web began.

A few days ago, I saw an article in the New York Times reporting how thousands had been surprised by their astronomical AOL online access bills. After reading the article about the super-charged surcharged 800# that unwitting "conlinesumers" use to mainline right into the heart of the Web via AOL, I recalled signing up with AOL, and how I had used my credit card to get the process going. Which naturally got me thinking about my own account's status, since my son and I spend hours online each week.

So I went online and looked, and then I looked again, and then I just stared stupidly at the cursor blinking stupidly next to the gargantuan and mind-boggling billing numbers.

On March 10th, AOL had electronically billed my bank account for $272; then on April 10th, they hit me up for $435 more. They had lifted it, without saying a word online or in writing, straight from my account, making the Dalton gang look like little more than bumbling bumpkins, by comparison.

Needless to say, when looking at the magnitude of my online access charges, I was at first dumbstruck, then confounded, and then enraged. No longer being an active carpenter, I sorely regretted I was unable to fling my 20oz Estwing framing hammer into the stand of maples some twenty yards from the job. So, being desk bound, I did the only thing I could, which was to pick up the phone and punch in AOL's online number as hard and as fast as I could.

After the usual music from nowhere and the polite PR buzz telling me I was the most important customer in the galaxy, a live voice finally talked to me, saying, "We are not using that number, Sir, you are."

Hearing that made my blood boil, and I demanded to speak to someone higher up, but was only given the AOL corporate fax number. So I immediately faxed corporate, demanding a full refund since a) I had no way of knowing that the 800 # inside my Packard Bell's software was not a "free 800 number," b) had unknowingly and unintentionally used instead a very expensive surcharged 800 number, and c) had not been informed (online or via snail mail) by either AOL or Packard Bell that a mistake had been made, that I should have been given the choice to choose my monthly access rate, etc. etc.

Not knowing what fate would befall my fax to corporate, I called the NY State Attorney General's Office in Albany. Reaching their office, I was told a form would be mailed to me so I could lodge a formal complaint. The low-level functionary's voice was much nicer, but no more promising of justice, in the end.

So I e-mailed the FCC and the FTC, telling them the facts as I know them. Over $700 in online access surcharges via the 800 number that came with my new Packard Bell computer's online AOL software.

The question is, who's to blame here? Should I have known the 800 number was not "a free call," when all other 800s are free? Should I have been more mindful of caveat emptor, "there's no free lunch," and "if it's too good to be true, then it isn't"?

Should I have looked more closely at my bank statement to see the automatic monthly AOL withdrawals? Should I, the quintessential American consumer, have to watch out for everything on the Web?

Or is this little tale just another lesson for me in the infinitely unfolding richness of human nature? In the surprise that each day holds for us as we venture farther and farther into the Cyber Frontier?

Or is this a forewarning about what might be in store for all of us on the Dark Side of the Web?

 Author: William Houze (

Staff Writer for WebFN News and co-owner of USNetWriters