"Free" reign: how to cancel CompuServe

The computer that Elizabeth Petofi bought from Circuit City in February 2002 came with one free year of the CompuServe online service. As part of the deal, she was required to furnish her debit-card number. Little did she suspect that when her free year was up, CompuServe (or, more precisely, parent company America Online) would use it to begin charging her $21.95 a month– for a service she claims she tried repeatedly to cancel.

According to Petofi, she first emailed CompuServe to say that she did not want to continue after her free year expired on February 19, 2003. (Because she later erased everything CompuServe from her computer, she no longer has a copy of the email.) In reply, she says she was instructed to write a letter, which she claims she did– only to be told that she would have to call Member Services to cancel her account.

"I called their number," she wrote me, "[and] I got what I believe were actual Indians in India, with very poor English, who– conveniently for CompuServe– could not understand me. I could understand them well enough to realize they were an upgraded voice-mail hell."

In any case, Petofi's cancellation request didn't get through– though, at first, she assumed it had: Her February 21 SunTrust statement showed no deduction for CompuServe. Her relief, alas, was short-lived. The next statement, which was dated March 24, reported two such deductions (on February 24 and March 24), for a total of $43.90.

Petofi claims that she called CompuServe five times in all, and during every call tried to cancel her service– only to realize, with each new bank statement, that she had failed. Her account was charged $21.95 in April and again in May, bringing the grand total to $87.80.

If she'd used a credit card, she would have been able to ask the card issuer to intervene. Because she was using a debit card, however, there was no third party to appeal to– and, she claims, SunTrust told her that the only way she could stop the deduction was to close her checking account.

"Closing an account" she wrote, "is such a hassle– and I had that account for over 10 years!" Her social-security check was automatically deposited to that account, so closing it created more headaches than simply opening a new account and buying new checks.

I spoke with Josh Danson in America Online's corporate communications department, and, in a follow-up email, asked him why, if Petofi had in fact instructed CompuServe to close the account, she had been charged. I also asked what system is in place for customers to cancel their account, and how she should go about getting a refund.

"I have spoken with our billing department," Danson's emailed reply began, "[which] has checked the call-center records for Mrs. Petofi's cancellation request and found no record" that she had asked CompuServe to close the account.

"After her free year ended, we began automatically charging $21.95 per month, a policy which is made explicit in the literature accompanying the offer for the free year.

"Cancellations must be made over the phone; we don't accept requests via letter. We do have a record of Mrs. Petofi contacting our call center on 6/24/03, but we suspect she called Member Services and chose the 'billing' option on the phone tree instead of 'cancel,' and then dropped off before she could be transferred to the appropriate department."

Danson concluded by stating that since there had been no usage since March, the company was going "to clear her outstanding balance of $43.90 and issue her a check for $21.95 for the month of April.

"We try to be as fair as possible in these situations," he stated in his email, "but we also have to follow strict procedures when it comes to canceling accounts in order to avoid any mistaken or unauthorized cancellations."

But what about the $21.95 they'd collected for May? I wondered. I called Danson back, and he agreed to research the situation. I'll report next week on the results.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.