MSN billing: This issue is not resolved

"What a bunch of idiots." That's Robert Crytzer's assessment of the folks at MSN after almost five months of trying to intervene on his 80-year-old mother's behalf.

It begins with her purchase of a computer in December 2000 in Newport News, and her subscription to MSN internet service for three years, to be billed monthly to her Visa card.

Her credit card expired in November 2002, and she was issued a new one with the same number; the only thing that changed was the expiration date. Unbeknownst to her, MSN was unable to continue billing the new account, and emailed her to notify her of the problem. By then, however, her computer was ailing– probably due to a virus– and she was no longer using her email.

Crytzer claims that his mother learned of MSN's problem only when they wrote her a letter in May 2003, and that she wrote back to say that "her credit card was fine, according to the bank."

In July, when Crytzer called MSN to explain the situation, he says, he was told that his mother had broken the contract and owed $215 for a cancellation penalty. "I was told by several employees, including a supervisor, that it was her responsibility to notify MSN of the new credit-card expiration date," he says.

Crytzer's next step was to request in writing that his mother's account "go into 'disputed status' and not be turned over to their collection agency," and he asked that a manager call him "to work this problem out." These requests, he alleges, were ignored.

He then offered, he says, "to have MSN reinstate [the stopped] service to avoid the cancellation fee. They refused. In effect, they are charging my mother for a service contract cancellation fee for a contract agreement they broke and refuse to reinstate."

When Crytzer asked MSN to send him a copy of the service agreement his mother had signed, he claims, they provided a copy of her signature agreeing to MSN's terms and conditions, "but refused to produce a copy" of the contract, saying it was her responsibility to go to the store (which she could no longer remember) and obtain a copy.

By the time Crytzer contacted me, MSN had sent his mother's account to a collection agency, Dun & Bradstreet, which, as of October 7, was dunning her for $219.92.

I spoke with Jessica Keller at Waggoner Edstrom, the public-relations firm that handles MSN matters for Microsoft, and Keller contacted MSN's accounting department. Several hours later she emailed me the following statement:

"MSN is committed to providing its customers with the best online experience possible, and apologizes for any inconvenience Mrs. Crytzer has experienced. An MSN representative has followed up with her directly to address her questions and concerns, and we feel confident this issue is now resolved."

When I followed up with Crytzer, however, I learned that in fact the MSN person had spoken with Mrs. Crytzer only long enough for her to refer him to her son. No "questions and concerns" had been addressed, and there had been no resolution.

When MSN senior account manager Neil Miller later spoke with Crytzer, it was to say that, because of Microsoft's contractual obligations to Dun & Bradstreet, there was a good chance that nothing could be done. Miller confirmed for me that that might indeed be the outcome, and that his conversation with Mrs. Crytzer had consisted of being told to speak to her son. Miller said he didn't know why MSN had issued a statement claiming otherwise.

When the higher-ups at MSN finally reached their decision, however, it was worth cheering: They decided to waive the $219 entirely. (I love a happy ending.)

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