AOL Gone Bad... when to cut and run?

by Fred Showker

Herein is the long and sad story of how spam and online crime have driven some ISPs to blind, extreme measures which threaten the very usability of the internet. AOL, one of the world's longest trusted providers can no longer be trusted. Their overzealous quest to sell accounts by offering "spam blocking" is having the effect of isolating their user base from other web users. The following is a saga I've followed first hand -- so I know it's sad but true.

Drastic measures to shore up user base

According to news sources, America Online is considering offering its services, including e-mail, free to customers who already have a high-speed internet connection. Now we can understand why.

A Wired News Report relates:
      "AOL would no longer charge subscription fees to users with high-speed internet access or a dial-up service from another provider. AOL customers with "dial-up" internet access through AOL would still have to pay a monthly fee of as much as $26. The WSJ says AOL's U.S. subscriber base fell by 850,000 in the first quarter. But only about 30% of AOL's 18.6 million subscribers already have high-speed Internet access. The shortfall would be made up by advertising.
Reference: Wired News Report Jul, 06, 2006

AOL: Bad Medicine

In my humble opinion, this is bad medicine. If you check, you'll see my AOL screen name "AFAshwkr" was a founding member of AOL. Unfortunately, for the first time in 18 years, I am now forced to advocate dropping your AOL account.
Which brings me to the reason for this post:

Why drop America Online?

Quoting Joanna Glasner, Wired News
      " . . . America Online's controversial plan to charge mass e-mailers a fee to bypass their anti-spam system highlights the other, lesser-known, horn of the junk-e-mail problem: Filters that allegedly work too well.
      At issue is the problem of "false positives," industry-speak for legitimate messages mistakenly filtered out by anti-spam software.
      "If AOL or another ISP decides that someone's a spammer, then no e-mail from that individual gets through," said EFF attorney Cindy Cohn, whose group opposes the AOL plan. "But there's a fundamental difficulty at the heart of the spam debate: The only one who knows what you want delivered in your inbox is you."
      For years, e-mail users complained that torrents of unwanted messages clogged their inboxes and crimped their productivity. Now, e-mail users, marketers and mailing list operators are more worried that spam filters are blocking out too many wanted messages.
      AOL isn't the only company to face charges that it improperly blocks legitimate messages. But, as the world's largest ISP for years, it has long borne the brunt of complaints from mass e-mailers over the problem." [END QUOTE]

In addition to "false positives," AOL has taken another serious step over the line -- in addition to blocking mail, they block ENTIRE IP ADDRESSES -- evidently with faulty software -- and no intelligent means of recourse, outside of court.

AOL Kills multiple web sites:

On June 13, a chain of hotels along the East coast lost all their email. It simply stopped. As you can well imagine, this caused some trouble for the employees of these properties.

For the past eight years, this small management company has maintained a "business card" style web page, utilizing their domain name primarily for email rather than for a web presence. The web mail for the domain simply redirected incoming email to the end user's AOL account. It worked beautifully and legally until June 13th, when all email halted.

In an attempt to fix the problem, the web master made repeated telephone calls to AOL's Postmaster support line with please to get the block lifted. The only clue as to why the block was in place was "sufficient abuse complaints." Yet server logs showed that there had been no such "spam" nor complaints.

AOL holds email user hostage

Compounding problems, the telephone support spoke nearly non-understandable English -- offering no help beyond reading from the Postmaster's web page explanation of the problem. Additionally, the support person refused to escalate the help ticket, and refused to connect with a 'higher' supervisor. In effect, the webmaster was held hostage by telephone support knowning nothing about the situation and hardly able to communicate in English.

AOL provides bad advice, bad solutions

Over a series of four days, and four more calls into the AOL Postmaster's "support line" (Not an 800 number) the webmaster received four different reasons for the problem, with four different remedies -- all of which were promised to "work" and clear the IP within 24 hours. Today is July 9, and the IP is still blocked.

AOL blind to important communications

Here's where the scenario turns ugly. The fact that the IP is blocked also happens to block other web sites hosted on the same IP block. So other innocent web sites lose their email communication, including one which is a 'lifeline' into a dangerous third-world country where loss of communications could potentially be life threatening.

So, in an attempt to circumvent AOL's BLOCK, the webmaster moves all affected web mail installations to another server, and another all-new, never used IP number. Once propagated, that IP series also becomes blocked by AOL.

In yet more calls to support, the webmaster points out that the IP range could not have possibly produced "sufficient abuse complaints" because it's an all new IP range -- having been used only by the webmaster to test emails to and from the system. Telephone support still merely reads from the prepared web pages, offering no solution beyond "DNS Loop" set-ups.

By this time two weeks had passed, with webmail users still dead in the water.

Comcast exposes AOL

Last week, through testing the system, another rather disturbing bounce error message was received -- this time from Comcast. The error said Comcast was blocking the IP because of "sufficient abuse complaints". However, they were intelligent about the situation and provided the actual IP reference.

A quick call into the Comcast security office provided an agent, speaking perfect English, who fully understood what happened, and was able to intelligently provide answers and solutions.

The IP number was registered to a spammer in Salt Lake City UT who had forged the headers in spam to the domain and IP of the hotel chain. It was obvious to the agent where AOL's blind server blocked it without question. But the Comcast agent acted and remedied the block, returning mail to normal by the next morning.

This is a clear difference in user support philosophies: AOL blocks, once and for good, without regard to whether or not the block is legitimate. Comcast blocks, but for a minimum expense, has an intelligent person available to communicate and manage the system properly.

Solution: Drop AOL

When a service provider no longer manages their services properly and puts profits above customers, it's time to drop them and find another service provider.

Finding no help or support of worth from AOL, the only recourse these web clients have is to drop their AOL accounts for a more reputable and supportive web host.

Bottom line

AOL is battling the spam scourge with blind technology, rather than intelligent management.

As UGNN proposed in 2002, the IP block method is the best solution to spam and online criminal activities like phishing. However, the specific proposal to AOL was based on intelligent human intervention, proofing and validating who would be blocked, offering a speedy remedy for legitimate "false positives" and providing solid user support. They failed in all but one.

At any time, AOL can and would black-list YOUR IP block through no fault of your own. Your email will stop, and you'll have no recourse nor trail of complaint to pursue. Your email and web site will simply be "dead" to all other subscribers and users of the AOL system.

Maintain your AOL account if you wish. But be forewarned:
* DO NOT rely on AOL for important communications
* DO NOT use AOL for your exclusive email provider
* AOL Mail delays your mail from five (5) to twenty-four (24) hours*
* You will waste your time calling for support.

For now, that's all I have to say.

Thanks for reading...

Fred Showker

Fred Showker, Editor, Graphic Design & Publishing

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Comments

On October 14th, Summer said:

Now I'm like, well duh! Truly tahknufl for your help.

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