Is AOL Ripping Off Your Mom?

I blame myself. I understand the Internets. I should have warned her. But I didn’t know.

And my mistake cost my mother hundreds of dollars.

The sad truth is that until recently my mother has been paying for an AOL (Stock Quote: TWX) email account every month.

Early on, starting in about 1992 she used AOL for dialup, but she’s had broadband through cable for about 10 years, so for all that time she’s been paying just for an AOL email account.

During the summer of 2006, AOL started offering free email accounts. Mom didn’t realize that, so for the past three years she’s been paying either $10 or $15 per month (she’s not sure) needlessly.

I’m not alone. Plenty of you must have parents that have unwittingly been paying for something that’s free. I’ve seen quite a few posts about this phenomenon (here, here and here) online. Still, it’s shameful.

Mom called AOL to complain and was told that the bonus she got for the monthly fee was access to technical support people over the phone, a service she’s used maybe twice in 15 years.

“They said that periodically they’d written me about opportunities to change the account stats but I don’t remember ever getting anything,” she told me. “In other words, they said they’d offered me the free service. Like I’d ignore that!”

She then asked AOL for a refund of some of the money she’d spent since 2006, to which they politely declined.

In Search of Answers

So I called AOL and was connected with a very nice PR person who had the unenviable job of defending a company accused of ripping off a reporter’s mom. She handled the task with élan, though not, unfortunately, with any really pertinent info.

First she explained that when AOL introduced free accounts on August 2, 2006 and there was a big media blitz to make sure that all AOL subscribers knew about the change. Every subscriber got an email, there was a press release and there were other efforts (though I’m not entirely sure what they were). In any case, my mom, along with what I imagine to be thousands of other subscribers either missed the email or didn’t understand its implications. According to the AOL spokesperson, many migrated to the free service, though unfortunately, we don’t know the actual number of people who switched because, as the spokesperson said, “We don’t break that out.”

The only number the PR person would tell me is that AOL has 6.3 million subscribers, but that includes all levels of membership. AOL won’t tell us how many of their users are currently paying just for email accounts and tech support. In fact, if you look at their paid plans, there isn’t even one that reflects that option. All of the plans with a monthly fee include either broadband or dial-up access. And the cheapest dial-up plan at $9.99 per month only includes “Limited technical support for connectivity issues.”

So it’s likely that users who didn’t opt in to the free service were automatically enrolled into one of these paid plans, which in addition to email and tech support, also provide them with either broadband or dial-up Internet access. But people like my mom don’t need AOL Internet access so they are effectively paying for a service they don’t need. They also would never need technical support for “connectivity issues” because AOL isn’t responsible for their internet connection. AOL must be aware that a good chunk of their customers are paying for services which other customers are getting for free, and I’d venture to guess that the misunderstanding translates to a nice bump on their struggling balance sheets.

So while it makes good business sense, it is not, in one son’s opinion, the most honest approach to doing business with anyone, particularly our beloved though sometimes technically challenged baby boomers.

I told the AOL spokesperson that what they might have done is at the time of transition to free accounts: identify all the AOL users who only had email accounts and were not using AOL to connect to the Internet and automatically enroll them in the free plan. If there came a time when they needed either an Internet connection or live technical support, then they would be given the opportunity to enroll in an appropriate plan. The AOL spokesperson didn’t seem to care for that idea.

“We don’t do these changes automatically. We want them to be able to choose their own plans,” the spokesperson said.

I think it’s fair to say that AOL did make a real effort to get the message out. However, they should have been able to guess that not everyone would get or understand the message, and the company seems content to let these mistakes stand, then politely alter accounts when the subscribers figure out the gambit.

Not cool.

On a side note, the AOL e-mail address may be worth dumping anyway, even if they are free: I was interested to read in an AP story that for older job seekers, having an AOL email address isn’t helping their marketability.

“Gregg Cygan, a 60-year old graphics consultant based near Chicago, has decades of experience with technology and was a charter member of AOL's email service. Yet he said some people consider his email address out of step. ‘They only think you're hip if you have a Gmail account,’ Cygan said, referring to Google's email service.”

Oh and by the way Gmail, whose company's stock is doing a bit better than AOL's (Stock Quote: GOOG), has always been free.

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