by Mark Frauenfelder

America Online used to give free accounts to journalists. I was happy to have one, which I used to download shareware and pull pranks with email accounts that I'd create on the spot for the purpose. (Each AOL account can have up to 4 additional email addresses, and you can change them at will.)

The gravy train dried up a few weeks ago, however, when I received email from, which read, in part:

"America Online has conducted an internal review of several business accounts and their professional relationship with AOL. As a result of the review, your overhead account status will be discontinued. You may elect to become a paying member by updating your billing information at keyword: BILLING using your master screen name, or by calling our toll-free member services number at 1-800-827-6364 and providing billing information over the phone."

No problem. I was willing to pay $20/month for AOL. They needed my financial support to pay for all that busy-signal-generating equipment they use.

So, just as OHReview instructed me, I went to "keyword: BILLING", and entered my American Express card information. But when I clicked on the "submit" button, a dialog box popped up informing me that I had entered "Invalid credit card information." I tried all my credit cards, and tried entering the information seven different ways from Sunday, but each time I was rewarded with the infuriating little "Invalid credit card information" dialog box.

So then, I emailed, asking for assistance. The response was almost instantaneous:

"The mail you sent could not be delivered to: 550 is not receiving mail."

Poor Steve Case. Not only did the AOL bigwig have to worry about irate members who can't connect to his service, but he's got so much money flooding into his vaults that he's had to set up a system to prevent people from handing him more of the bothersome green stuff!

Feeling like a bee in a plastic flower factory, I dialed 1-800-827-6364 and successfully navigated my way through the voice mail maze. (Whoever designed it should contact the Miller Brothers about writing the next MYST adventure.) Brigit (not her real name) answered the phone. I told her I wanted to change my billing status, and begin paying for AOL through American Express. Brigit called up my information on her trusty terminal, informed me that I had an overhead account, and because of this, she would not give me a regular $20/month account unless my "sponsor" contacted her.

I told Brigit I *wanted* AOL to start billing me, and since I didn't know who my sponsor was, I'd much rather get this over with here and now. I tried to gain her sympathy, by telling her that my account would be terminated on June 13 unless I found some way to convince her to accept $240 a year from me. But she responded with silence, probably hoping I'd hang up in frustration. I asked to speak to her supervisor, but she wouldn't let me, explaining that her supervisor would "tell me the same thing."

We went back and forth for a while. I could tell she was becoming exasperated. She wanted to get rid of me. I felt sorry for her -- but not sorry enough to let her off the hook. She was my last resort, and the only human at AOL who was willing to talk to me.

I read Brigit the email from, emphasizing the portion that stated "You may elect to become a paying member by ... calling our toll-free member services number at 1-800-827-6364." Brigit tried her silent treatment on me again, but this time I decided to give her a taste of her own medicine, and gave her the silent treatment. We were playing a game of chicken -- who could hold out the longest? I began going through my email, determined to keep the phone pinched between my shoulder and my ear until the next century, when she finally snarled "Hold on," and put me on hold.

Three minutes later she returned and said, "What credit card are you using?" I gave her the information, and made her promise I'd been changed to a paying member.

My service hasn't been shut off yet -- so far so good. Thanks, AOL, for accepting my money!

Mark Frauenfelder Editor, Wired Books
Senior Writer, Wired News

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