Why did my Internet service-provider treat me like a terrorist?

You can often tell a person’s age by their email provider. If they use AOL in Britain it is likely they have grey hair.

I’ve foolishly possessed an AOL account since 1998. It means I’ve paid them roughly five grand to be serially disconnected from many of the pleasures of communication. Their service – how shall I describe it? – is at best patchy; at worst like waiting for Godot. But I stay and stay because I have 15,000 emails on file and everyone knows my address.

I am technical too. You can enjoy the delights of AOL on my two desktops, three laptops, two Ipads, one Iphone, a Blackberry and various older machines. Until the other night.

At 11.45 I got a message on my Iphone saying that “it could not reach the AOL server because either the username or password were wrong”.

Like many messages on the Internet (as on Britain’s Motorways) this message was false. My username and password were fine – they’d just been blocked.

I probed further and was instructed by an AOL page-bot to change my password since security ‘may have been compromised’.

Now if you are an American this change is simple. But the dialog boxes you must complete to manage this process even for UK customers require a US-style phone number and/or zip code. They clearly don’t want to hear from their foreign clientele.

So I became even more daring and phoned the US helpline because the UK service had just shut down for the eight hours from midnight.  I was quickly put in touch with – let’s call him – Mr Simply Angry – who proceeded to take my details and test my identity.

After, in my British way, I had politely complied with protocol and explained the nature of the problem and why I needed to bother him personally he demanded to know whether I had been sending out Spam.

There are several answers to such a question of course ranging from “Of course not” to “Yes, I have nothing better to do with my time”, but I knew from experience never to risk a joke under such circumstances since such jokes can kill.

Second question: “Had I ever been to South Carolina? Er … no.

“Or Korea?” Er … never.

“Well, he said, your email account, the one that you own, has been sending out spam from those two places and it’s a very serious matter. Have you by any chance let others use the account or access your password?”

I assured him that even my partner and kids were not allowed to fool around with such important sources of information lest they discover secrets they must never know.

He then told me I would need to have all my machines disinfected and that would have to be a complex and paid-for service. Paid for by me, that is.

(On reflection, what at this point I think he was trying to do – albeit ineptly – was to sell me a piece of proprietary software that contained a virus-removal tool on which he would receive a commission).  I was so mind-boggled by his approach I simply said:

“I have Norton anti-virus in place and up to date. I frequently use Trend Micro’s excellent online scan programme Housecall, and I have four disks of additional malware removal tools. Now you suggest you want to charge me, a long-standing customer who has done nothing but use his account in the same way for 16 years, even more money because your system has probably been hacked again (the worst breach was last April, 2014 – just Google it). But I was quickly interrupted.

“This account which you own has been sending out spam. It has been reported as sending out spam. As such it has been suspended… It’s your account and you own it!” (his voice rising).

I asked: “Are you getting aggressive with me?”

“Yes,” he said. “I am getting aggressive with you…” (where are those recordings “for training purposes” when you need them?). I am getting aggressive because you are wilfully spreading virus programmes on the Internet and it is entirely your responsibility…”

“On the contrary”, I replied, “I’m paying you for a service which as far as I am concerned you are not providing to me, it is your fault if improper material has been circulated and I am trying to co-operate with your systems which are clearly unfit for purpose”.

“Mr Hodson, you OWN this account (now shouting) which has been reported to the authorities. We here at AOL (I swear he almost said “CIA”) are aware that your account has been compromised. It’s the account that you OWN which I am now going to suspend permanently. That’s it. It’s over. There is nothing else you can do. Goodbye”.

And with that ended the most bizarre conversation I have ever held with a technical “support” person. (I did manage to tell him he was “the limit” and that I might feel moved to complain but managed to keep my utterances both respectful and cuss-free).

I additionally felt that his fear of the “other” (wrong accent; wrong country; wrong answers) made me in his mind an honorary member of some political splinter group whose aim was to destroy AOL and – later in the afternoon – probably the world…

Took me a bit longer after that to fall asleep.

Needless to say, when I rang AOL in Britain at nine o’clock next morning, they changed my password in 20 seconds flat; only briefly tried to flog me an anti-viral disk and then encouraged me to “have a nice day” – adding: “it’s been nice talking to you”.

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