AOL Watch: Playoff Problems

David Cassel (
Sun, 10 May 1998 17:18:21 -0700 (PDT)

			P l a y o f f   P r o b l e m s


"The series is finished, and I have no idea who won." 

In 1996, Steve Case claimed AOL had "the longest-running online fantasy
football league."  But last week, confusion reigned in many of AOL's
fantasy sports.  ("Are we even going to have playoffs???" read one post in
AOL's message boards.)  The Basketball Playoffs -- and the Hockey Playoffs
-- had been rescheduled...and game organizers attributed the move to "a
delay involving the software that allows those playoffs to take place."
Unfortunately, the problems wreaked havok.  ("I think the playoffs are
over for basketball, and I think I won..."  another player posted.) 

But beyond the glitches, players faulted the way staffers responded.  Some
players noted their complaints were being deleted from the message boards
-- and AOL's software indicated the messages were going unread at an
e-mail address provided for complaints, ultimately expiring, unread, on
AOL's mail servers.  ("We have been working hard to come up with the best
solution possible to the situations that occurred in Grandstand Fantasy
Hockey and Grandstand Fantasy Basketball,"  one gaming staffer announced
"and do not want to respond to you with partial or incomplete

It was a season unlike no other.  "We are aware that nobody has advanced
in the playoffs and that the teams have just switched opponents," the post
continued.  "All four teams are continuing to play. This is an error.. 
Sorry for the inconvenience."  As other problems went unaddressed, fantasy
team owners grumbled about the $35 they'd paid to participate.  "Does
anyone care," one message asked, "or have you just stolen everyone's
money?"  After one staffer suggested complainers were "the minority", a
game-player interviewed 134 of the participants, and distributed his

   * 87% had a negative impression of AOL's handling of playoff problems. 

   * 82% had a negative impression of the playoffs

   * 77% had a negative impression of overall communication

Soon the players suspected behind-the-scenes intrigue.  One website claims
a transcript of an on-line meeting that suggests the fantasy leagues
themselves have become a kind of legal football.  ("AOL and STATS have
been in contract negotiations for a long time...")

The alleged log fueled suspicions in AOL's message boards.  "Anyone who's
paying attention knows that our playoffs were screwed up because of a
payment dispute between AOL and STATS,"  one poster volunteered.  Another
asked "Is there any management left to demand refunds from????"  Gamers
desperately searched for responses.  "We 'overnighted' an eight-page
report to George Vrandenburg, Vice President at AOL," one player told AOL
Watch, "but received no response." 

Finally, Wednesday they received an e-mail from AOL's office of the
Chairman.  "I am responding to your recent message on behalf of Steve
Case," it began.  "Thank You for taking the time to write us." 
Unfortunately, the form response that followed addressed a different
question.  "We are in the process of converting all AOL Message Boards to
a new system similar to Internet Newsgroups.  The major benefits

For AOL, ongoing problems are nothing new.  Though Prudential downgraded
AOL's stock Wednesday morning
( ), it rocketed past $90 a
share Friday -- but AOL's users didn't get the word.  "Stock Quotes are
down on AOL today," one AOL Watch user complained.  Keyword "stock"
stopped dispensing quotes that afternoon for nearly five hours -- from
3:51 p.m. until 8:30 PST.  ("Try again later," an AOL pop-up window
advised.)  [ ] For the final
fifteen minutes, keyword "Stock" itself was often unavailable, displaying
AOL's "System Response" message instead. [] 
Then Saturday afternoon, many users found AOL was unable to list mail.
"Please try again in a few minutes," AOL's pop-up menu advised -- though a
few minutes later, the message changed to "A request to the host has taken
longer than expected..."

By now, many users have become accustomed to AOL hype outstripping grimy
realities. "Save yourself aggravation," AOL promised in an ad for "My AOL"
magazine, saying the $20 subscription "helps troubleshoot the most common
user problems..."  Unfortunately, many users who ordered it were told AOL
was "unable to fulfill" their requests.  "We regret any inconvenience," an
e-mail informed them instead, "and again, thank you for your interest."  A
Jupiter Communications official even told C|Net AOL may have erred in
choosing a hot-air balloon for their promotions.  "Digerati will be
tempted to say that AOL has its head in the clouds." 
(,4,20950,00.html ) 

People are noticing.  "Hardly a month passes until AOL does something more
idiotic than before," Boardwatch columnist Wallace Wang wrote in April. 
( )  "With this latest
trouble with AOL subsiding, anyone want to guess the next stupid move AOL
will make tomorrow?"  In one on-line poll asking "Is AOL's comeback
complete?", 82% of respondents answered "No, it still has a long way 
to go..."

But ultimately, it's customers who suffer from AOL's missteps.  Last month
AOL announced their "exclusive direct marketer of medical insurance and
certain other health care-related insurance products and services." 
There's just one problem.  "The vendor AOL has chosen for this venture,
Provident American in the midst of serious financial
difficulties," according to the Washington Post, "which are being examined
by the NASDAQ Stock Market and could cause Provident American's stock to
be de-listed."

The Post also noted AOL has remained silent on crucial issues.  "There has
been no mention that while promising 'competitive rates' one minute,
Provident was raising rates the next." (In fact, AOL's press release finds
their president of Interactive Services saying it will offer "low cost,
high quality health care insurance products.")  Behind all the hoopla, the
Post reports a disturbing truth.  When an independent rating service
evaluated the firm's two subsidiaries, they "received a D, on a scale of A
to F."  Bad signs also hung over the long- distance service being marketed
by AOL.  One user reports when they clicked on the icon labeled "Show me a
bill" -- it wouldn't.  "It doesn't work for Mac users who connect to AOL
via an ISP...  I also tried Netscape Navigator 4.04.1, and Internet
Explorer 4.0a.  No luck." ( ) 

But disaster can strike at any time.  "I had problems with AOL's crappy
browser," an AOL Watch reader reports, "so I clicked on the 'Error
Messages' section in the help area."  It just made things worse...  "As
soon as I clicked that button, AOL crashed with a 'This program has
performed an illegal operation and will be shut down...' error message."
Other users had problems reporting problems, too.  "I wanted to ask an AOL
representative a question at 12:43 a.m,"  another AOL Watch reader
remembers. "I went to their Tech Live thing, and it was a 27 minute

Even an Internet marketing specialist, reporting on his experience for the
San Francisco Examiner, wrote after investigating another set of glitches
that "I have invested several hours on this issue and frankly have lost my
patience in pursuing AOL further with this problem."  The glitches brought
consequences, he wrote last Sunday.  "While trying to impress, a potential
AOL customer (my in-laws) with the Internet, I experienced one of those
days when you see 'technical difficulties try again in one hour' or
'Sorry, we are temporarily unable to list mail. Please try again in a few
minutes'."  It wasn't an isolated incident.  "This messaging continued for
several hours and clearly didn't make these potential consumers for a PC
and an ISP service feel confident in committing themselves..."

The experience led him to a dire conclusion.  "My instincts tell me AOL
doesn't have its network technologies or capacity problems solved
completely, possibly raising the potential of another breakdown similar to
the one we experienced last year."  He also provided his answer to the
hypothetical question, "If your e-mail address could be seamlessly
reconnected to another ISP, for the same price or less, would you change
providers?"  "I, for one, would say yes, and I suspect a few million more
users would give it serious consideration." 

It seems AOL is relying heavily on the importance of e-mail addresses to
retain their current customers.  Announcing the 10% price-hike which went
into effect for all AOL's dial-up customers last month, Steve Case offered
a list of AOL advantages, beginning with multiple screen names.  "No other
major service allows families to have five screen names (or e-mail
addresses) for individual use," Case argued.  Unfortunately, this specious
argument rests on the inexperience of AOL's users.  Services like Juno,
Hotmail, and even Yahoo offer an unlimited supply of free e-mail
addresses, accessible through a web browser connecting from any internet

Case's bad advice highlights a growing arrogance.  "Thanks for ALL the
support!!" a sarcastic user wrote in response to particularly bad customer
service.  "I am presently looking for another with actual tech

"I am writing to you on behalf of America Online in response to your
recent e-mail inquiry,"  read the form letter he received in reply.  "I am
very happy that we were able to help. We are always glad to hear from
members who are pleased with our Technical Support.  I sincerely hope that
we can continue to have a successful relationship...  Thank you for using
America Online and have a nice day." 

Others report AOL's responses can't even claim politeness.  Last July a
columnist at the staid Inc. magazine reached for unflattering comparisons. 
"What Do America Online and Dennis Rodman Have in Common?" their headline
asked.  Answer?  "They're unforgivably rude, rude, rude."  
( )  Even AOL
customers trying to unsubscribe find resistance.  "AOL jail is a good term
for it," one AOL Watch reader reported -- and another writes that "They
continue to charge my charge account even after I told them to cancel... 
Each time I call them to let them know that I am still being charged, they
apologize and credit my account. But on my next statement, I not only get
the credit, but another charge."  Adding insult to injury, "When I called
them this last time, they told me that they only credit two months and if
there are additional charges that I needed to write in."  More daunting
was the lack of accountability.  "When I asked for a supervisor, I was not
only told that there was not one available, but they refused to tell me
their full name." 

Another subscriber reported similar problems when discussing a TOS
violation.  "When I asked to speak to a supervisor or manager, I was
rudely told that none were available -- and it wouldn't do any good
anyway, as each AOL employee is empowered to make decisions and their
decision was to cancel my account." 

"This is what happened to ME as well," another AOL Watch reader reported,
"and when I demanded to speak to a supervisor, I was hung up on."  He
wasn't just another AOL user.  "I WORKED AT AOL!!!!!!"  His conclusion? 
Regardless of what the three staffers said, "This is a violation of AOL
policy and rules." 

The inability of AOL's customer service representatives to follow simple
rules could have serious consequences, as one Guide found out.  The home
address he'd entered as his AOL billing information appeared in a taunting
Instant Message from a stranger, his web page reports -- and he sent a
detailed inquiry about the incident to Guide program staffers.  "I'm
pointing this out, in detail, because I do believe that AOL has a problem
with it's security along these lines," he wrote in a polite follow-up.
"Others besides myself, both Guides and regular members, have experienced
situations like this..."

His concern went unrewarded.  In fact, three weeks later, he'd lost his
position as a Guide. "Were you really fired because you expressed your
concerns regarding security?" reads a question on his web page.  "To the
best of my knowledge, yes."
The former Guide now offers his assessment of AOL's security.  "Account
information is still getting out.  It's happened to a number of people,
both AOL Community Leaders and regular AOL members.  AOL has done very
little in the way of attempting to keep this from happening...  I think
people need to know that..."

His web page is part of a remarkable phenomenon -- a ring of web pages
created by former AOL Community Leaders.  "What can you say about a
service with 10,000,000 members that lies to its members about account
security and to the media about steps it takes to protect its members?"
another page asks.  The answer?  "AOL.  It's so easy to use...."

Some former AOL staffers even end up in court.

"On April 25, 1996, after 4 years of litigation, AOL and myself settled a
law suit that began with the filing of a small claims court case in April
of 1992," Erroll Trobee tells AOL Watch.  His original lawsuit covered
payment of back wages, but expanded to other charges including libel and
breach of contract.  That case was settled -- but the administration of
that settlement launched a new round of legal filings charging AOL with
three recent "breach of contract" counts.  Trobee feels AOL should take
his case seriously.  In previous hearings, AOL was found in contempt of
court, Trobee notes, for failure to provide discovery material three
times.  ("The final Sanction Hearing in court, prior to settlement, was,
in part, to determine if one of their attorneys should be charged with
perjury,"  Trobee commented in October.)

But even bigger legal issues are waiting for AOL.  The U.S. Supreme Court
has directed AOL to respond to a petition for a "Writ of Certiorari." 
Though the 1995 lawsuit Zeran v.  AOL had been settled by the U.S. Court
of Appeals, Kenneth M. Zeran apparently persisted. ("It appears the high
Court is taking the issues seriously," one lawyer following the case told
AOL Watch.) 

And AOL may have narrowly avoided even more legal trouble, according to a
C|Net column describing "the keyword hanky-panky rocking America
Online..."  (,29,,00.html )  Though ICQ
software boasts a user base nearly as large as AOL's, with 10,000,000
subscribers and 400,000 users on-line simultaneously 
( ), AOL had pointed keyword "ICQ" to an
ICQ-competitor owned by AOL -- apparently because ICQ hadn't paid AOL. 
"Keywords are for those with whom we have business relationships or for
our own products," AOL's spokeswoman had told C|Net's columnist.

But maybe not, says a subscriber reading AOL's beta-testing message board. 
One post featured a pointer to a downloadable software test on AOL.  "It
was an AOL keyword, with the little heart that you can add to favorite
places...  I didn't think too much of it at the time."  But another
beta-tester reported the test wreaked havok when she re-booted her
machine.  "This is the third time in two weeks that we found invalid
keywords..."  the beta-tester told AOL Watch -- and though this one was
removed, no acknowledgment was made to beta-testers of the potential
risk.  "They are certainly aware of this problem, as they removed that
keyword, and the two others we found...."  But there was a larger issue. 
"AOL is not informing anyone of any of this like they should. They have a
responsibility to their customers." 

It's part of a larger problem.  "America Online is a favorite among the
computer hackers..."  reports the Washington Post "because its 12 million
customers make a highly visible target." AOL told the paper at least one
customer planned to cancel their account over a hoax threatening a hacker

But a very real password-stealing program is being circulated to AOL's
users, disguised as the elusive build of AOL's 4.0 software.  One former
staffer told AOL Watch the program "has been circulating in e-mail for
quite some's a 159K file, another trojan horse."

Even a reporter for NetGuide magazine has lost control of her account
( -- and
security problems extend to AOL's own buildings.  Last week, "A purse, a
wallet, credit cards, a checkbook and cash were stolen from a conference
room at a business" at 22000 AOL WAY, according to the Washington Post's
Crime Report.

AOL may hope to offset growing dissatisfaction with more floppy disks. 
They spent $84.2 million on marketing between January and March -- about
the same as last year -- and the onslaught is continuing.  "Last week I
ordered some pantyhose (L'Eggs brand) online from One Hanes Place," one
AOL Watch reader reports, "and, lo and behold, what showed up in my
package along with my L'Eggs was an AOL disk for 50 free hours."  Another
AOL Watch reader ordered squeaky toys for her puppy from Foster and Smith
Pet Products -- and sure enough, "On top of the toys and styrofoam peanuts
was an America Online disk."  AOL's chief financial officer told C|Net AOL
would increase the money they spend on marketing "substantially" between
April and June -- a slow period for AOL -- then asked analysts not to
increase their predictions for AOL's earnings! 
(,4,21861,00.html )  Leader conceded that
AOL spends 16 percent of all their revenue trying to get new customers --
and cites this as an improvement from last year, when a desperate AOL sunk
37 percent of all revenue (presumably, to offset subscribers leaving the

Maybe they should try addressing angry subscribers -- like the one who
e-mailed Steve Case in February.  "Although you are 'sorry' you are
'temporarily unable to list mail' and tell me I should 'please try again
in a few minutes'," they wrote, "I AM TRYING AGAIN AND AGAIN....."  Some
are beginning to resent the gulf between AOL's public claims and its
actual performance.  "I viewed an AOL commercial tonight on TV, and
distinctly remember it saying 'Why do you like AOL?  E-mail!'," one cynical
reader told AOL Watch.  "I found this quite humorous, especially in light
of all the system outages, mail delivery problems etc..."  But another AOL
Watch reader reports that AOL's promises get grander and grander.  "I saw
the new AOL ads this weekend, where the actress comes right out and says
'AOL is the Internet'."

In any case, "Wait 'til next year" has a whole new meaning for players of
AOL's fantasy leagues, as some vowed to switch to ESPN's leagues -- or
simply create their own.  ("Why do we need AOL next season?" one poster
asked.  "We can create our own league next season," agreed another...) 
One player contacted the Better Business Bureau -- and received a response
Thursday ( )  And
another player is contemplating a more permanent solution.  An AOL member
since 1990, they posted that "I am considering canceling AOL...since they
are ultimately accountable for this mess." 


Subscribers who actually received their copy of "My AOL" read an even
stranger anecdote about a couple who met on AOL. 

"We are planning a Jewish wedding together and instead of breaking the
traditional glass, we are going to break an AOL disk." 

     David Cassel
     More Information -,4,21954,00.html


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