Net misery: AOL 'services' not free

"Get 1099 hours FREE for 50 days," the ad on AOL's website trumpets; "No credit card required." Click on the link, however, and you'll learn that a credit card– or, as it's cleverly put, "a major billing method"– is required. Welcome to the world of AOL.

The ad declares that your credit or debit card won't be billed until the 50 days are up. But as some consumers are learning, mighty strange things can happen to that card number once it's been stored in AOL's database. Consider, for instance, what happened to John Cole.

Cole's troubles began, he claims, when he got one of those "Try AOL Free" CDs last September. The Villa Hills, Kentucky, resident was already on Juno, but decided to give AOL a try. Two days into the trial period, however, he decided he didn't want to continue. Cole claims that he called AOL customer service to cancel, and was told everything was "okay"– i.e., his account would be inactivated and his debit card would not be charged.

According to Cole, his bank statement for October told a different story. While he hadn't been charged for AOL itself, he had been charged $8 for AOL Net Market and $9 for AOL Auto Advantage. Cole, who is disabled and lives on a fixed income, claims he never signed up for either service– and, furthermore, that he didn't even know what they were. (He later learned that Net Market is an Internet shopping service, and Auto Advantage is similar to AAA.)

Cole began calling AOL, and says he was told that the charges would stop. But they didn't, and his checking account continued to be debited a total of $17 every month. In March he finally persuaded AOL Auto Advantage to stop charging him. Net Market, however, was a harder sell.On March 13 he posted a rather plaintive appeal for help on, which I read and responded to.

Since then I've learned that Internet complaint sites fairly bristle with allegations that AOL and its "partners," such as Auto Advantage and Net Market, have either charged consumers for services that were advertised as free or charged them for services they didn't order. A man in California, for instance, complained to the San Jose Mercury-News last November that a month after his mother died, AOL (where he also had an account) withdrew $79.99 from his checking account– for Net Market, which she had subscribed to.

AOL spokeswomen Lauren Caito told the Mercury-News that "It looks like [the Net Market charge] was rolled over from the mother's to the son's account." Call me cynical, but it's hard for me to imagine how that charge managed to "roll over" without human intervention.

When I asked Caito about Cole's experience, she began by saying that due to "complaints," Net Market and Auto Advantage are no longer AOL "partners." AOL partners, she explained, are "separate businesses that we work with" that run ad banners on AOL's website.

Caito contacted the two companies to ask about Cole's situation. Auto Advantage, she later told me, claimed they had "never billed" Cole; Net Market claimed that Cole had signed up over the phone and had been billed $4 each for two months and $8 each for three months, for a total of $32.

Au contraire, I replied; I had copies of Cole's bank statements, which showed that Auto Advantage had charged him $9 a month in January and February, and Net Market had charged him $8 a month in December, February, March and April. The statements only went back as far as December, but Cole claims the charges for both services began in October (to get copies of earlier statements, he would have to pay).

After I contacted Caito, an AOL customer service employee called Cole and offered to reimburse him for any charges he can document, along with the bank's charge for printing the older statements. Cole appreciates the gesture, but more than anything, he just wants AOL to leave him alone.

So far I've read two excellent books (Stealing Time and Fools Rush In) about the AOL-Time Warner debacle, which feature close examination by the Securities and Exchange Commission of AOL accounting practices. Stories such as Cole's and that of the dead woman whose Net Market bill migrated to her son's checking account are troubling enough on their own. Viewed in the larger context, they raise questions that AOL should be striving to answer.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.