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Easy Sign-Up, Hard Cancel
"You can't annoy someone into liking your brand," says Harley Manning, vice president of research at Forrester Research. But some companies certainly act as though they think he's wrong.
In January 2006, America Online agreed to pay $25 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought against it in the St. Clair County, Illinois, circuit court. The suit alleged, among other things, that AOL had billed customers for services that they had tried to cancel. The company settled a similar suit brought by the state of Ohio in 2005. In both cases, AOL denied any wrongdoing.
Sixteen days after I signed up for an AOL 90-Day Risk-Free dial-up account in Massachusetts, I decided to cancel the account. When I called AOL to do so, a representative peppered me with questions as to why I was unsubscribing and reminded me that I could maintain a free AOL e-mail account. I declined the offer, and the rep finally told me, "You will not be charged any monthly membership fees." I had similar experiences canceling the other two accounts.
But even though I canceled my 90-day trial after only 16 days, I was hit with a charge of $25.90, the monthly AOL fee, on my credit card. I also signed up for similar AOL accounts in Colorado (using a friend's address) and New York (using a relative's address). In both of those cases, my credit card was charged the monthly fee.
Later, when I called back and questioned why I had been billed, another representative told me that I had to ask for a refund, or else I wouldn't receive one--odd, given that the first rep had said that I wouldn't be billed.
An AOL spokesperson confirmed to me that members must request a refund in order to get one, and said that its customer service reps had erred each time I cancelled over the phone. Instead of telling me that I wouldn't be charged "any fees," the spokesperson said, they should have indicated to me that I wouldn't be charged "any additional fees."
MSN Internet billed me twice after I had closed that account. Likewise, Netflix charged me after I had canceled there.
These were honest mistakes, according to the companies involved. "As soon as issues like yours are brought to the attention of customer service, they are remedied immediately," Netflix spokesperson Bronagh Hanley assured me. A spokesperson for MSN echoed Netflix's statements. But in both cases I had to call to get the charges removed.
When I called to cancel RealNetworks' Real SuperPass I spoke with a company representative who kept cajoling me to change my mind. He then tried to sell me on the benefits of other RealNetworks services. All told, he asked me 13 times in several different ways to remain a customer.
Carol Rogalski, a spokesperson for RealNetworks, told me that my experience was a one-time occurrence. Then why, I asked Rogalski, had I encountered similar exit hassles earlier in the same month when I tried to unsubscribe from RealNetworks' Real Rhapsody service? According to Rogalski, RealNetworks is now conducting investigations into both incidents.