Not buddies: AOL reneges on payback pledge

Remember John Cole, the guy who tried AOL's "free" 50-day trial for two days? Even though he claims he was assured his account had been cancelled and he would not be charged anything, he ended up watching helplessly as two of AOL's "partners," Net Market and Auto Advantage, proceeded to chip away at his checking account every month via the debit-card number he'd given AOL when he signed up. Hmmm... I wonder how they got hold of that number?

When I investigated Cole's struggle ["Net misery," May 13, 2004], I learned from AOL spokeswoman Lauren Caito that the two former "partners" (AOL has since severed ties) claimed that Cole had requested the service. One claimed they'd never debited his checking account, and the other claimed to have only removed $24. But I had faxes of Cole's bank statements in hand, and told Caito neither statement was true.

An AOL customer service employee called Cole– who claims he tried many times to cancel the charges on his own– and stated that if Cole would get copies of all relevant statements, AOL would reimburse him for the invalid charges and cover the bank's service fees (for printing older statements) as well. That was May 5.

On May 26, after learning that Cole still hadn't received his money, I reopened the matter with Caito: First, I left a detailed message with her assistant; later the same day, I emailed her and asked when AOL would be refunding the money; and finally, the next day, I called her voice mail and again asked that she respond. She never did.

Cole, by the way, is disabled and lives on a fixed income; the $80 or so AOL still owes him isn't trivial, and Caito knows that. Perhaps she's just distracted right now by weightier problems: As reported May 22 in The New York Times, AOL has lost customers for six consecutive quarters and "is the focus of investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department into accounting and disclosure practices."

Stay tuned: I'll be reporting on more AOL adventures soon.


Called on the carpet

 After writing two recent columns about Eways Carpet One ["Pulled rug," March 4, and "Missing rugs," April 22], I got an aggrieved letter from Mrs. Frank S. Eways, who claimed that "all Eways" had been unfairly tarred by my brush. "I, being an Eways," she wrote, "was offended by the implication."

I can understand her chagrin: Her husband, who's been in the oriental-rug business in Charlottesville since 1967, has just opened a new store in Ruckersville, and apparently gets lots of phone calls from irate Carpet One customers who assume the two stores must be connected. They're not: Carpet One used to be owned by Frank's brother Munir, who sold it last year to Bob Dumitru. Frank's store, which goes by Frank S. Eways, Ltd., is at 347A Moore Road in Ruckersville.


A happy ending

 Kurt Kroboth got some welcome news last week from his credit-card company. After initialing rejecting his appeal of charges by Dennis Rental Cars, they've now ruled in his favor.

I wrote about Kroboth's wrangle over a rental-car bill last winter ["Pricey ride?" February 5], in which he claimed that the Pantops company, when quoting him their daily rate for a compact car, neglected to mention mileage– or to state it on the contract he later signed. The company denied this. Yet when he returned the car two days later, the bill included $134 for mileage.

Kroboth had made a copy of the original contract and could prove that it didn't match the contract he was presented with his credit-card receipt: The line that says "Miles @" on the original was blank, but on the later copy it read, "Miles @ 30 cents." That, he believes, is what convinced the credit-card company to deny the additional charge.

So that's my consumer tip for the week: When entering into a contract, make a copy of the document before the goods or services have been delivered. As Kroboth can attest, a dime spent at Kinko's might buy some pretty valuable protection later on.

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.