Exclusive: AOL's Collections Guide Encourages Agents To Lie And Deceive

An anonymous tipster sent us AOL’s 153 page internal collections guidebook for prying money out of delinquent account holders. The guide shows that AOL is following some of the debt industry’s most egregious collection tactics by encouraging agents to deceive and lie to customers. After the jump we present AOL’s scare tactics, tricks to negotiating a substantial discount, and the full collections guide.

AOL lies to their customers and has a policy of refusing to escalate to supervisors:

http://consumermediallc.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/3.2_won%27t_escalate-thumb.jpg?w=494&h=524

Apparently the trick to getting an actual supervisor is to pretend like you want to pay your bill. If you haven’t used your account for more than three months you can receive up to a 40% discount, perfect for those who have tried and failed to cancel your account.

If you refuse to pay your bill, AOL will threaten to ruin your credit (with AOL):

http://consumermediallc.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/3.2_discounts-thumb.jpg?w=494&h=688

You can practically see AOL’s lawyers cackling with glee as they drape their cloak of legal protection while daring representatives to choose between ignoring the guidebook and failing to scare consumers into paying their debt.

AOL’s abusive relationship with its “members” is not new, but it is surprising how enthusiastically they have embraced the standard lies and deceit peddled by the debt collection industry. According to our tipster, the guide is from 2006, but the tactics and policies remain unchanged.

The only way to fight back against scummy collectors is to know your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Read AOL’s full collections guide, complete with other despicable practices, here.

PREVIOUSLY: EXCLUSIVE: Old AOL Cancel Script vs. New
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Comments

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  1. BigBoat says:

    Just awful.

  2. IphtashuFitz says:

    Makes me very glad I never got suckered into joining AOHell.

  3. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    Where’s the “keep people from cancelling at all costs” manual?
    Hey, we’re AOL, what are you going to do for internet?

  4. ptkdude says:

    Has anyone at AOL ever heard of “grammar check”?

  5. mom22bless says:

    People still pay for AOL?

    Wow…….

  6. Phexerian says:

    AOL is not breaking the FDCPA. The FDCPA does not apply to the lender itself but only to collection agencies.

    You can however, possibly get one of them for harassment. Best to make detailed notes on when and how often they call you. After a few hundred times, take them to court for it and ask for reimbursement for your time spent on the phone, lawyer fees, and punitive damages. Or settle out of court for a nice fee. Not to mention show the court a copy of this document showing their collections practices.

    Refusing to let someone speak to a supervisor is pretty common in many companies. Blizzard being one for example. Get used to it. =[

  7. EricaKane says:

    FDCPA states requirements for debt collectors. AOL is not a debt collector, it is the creditor. And thus they are not subject to the FDCPA requirments for debt collectors IMHO.

    FDCPA is a nuanced law and I don’t believe the Consumerist gave the law a proper reading.

  8. EricaKane says:

    wow Phexarian we posted almost the same thing at the same time..crazy

  9. humphrmi says:

    It’s too bad companies think that abusive treatment is an effective way to get their money.

    Years ago, I had some financial difficulties. Some companies I dealt with treated me well, and others abused me. That was ten years ago. Today my credit and payment history is perfect and I’m in a valuable demographic in age and income. A lot of companies would love to do business with me. The ones that abused me ten years ago still don’t get my business. And yes, they’ve begged. It’s sweet.

  10. azntg says:

    How scummy of them. Indeed, as members mentioned above, the FDCPA applies primarily to collection agencies and not for the original creditor (like AOL).

    However, you may have protection from your local state laws. Harassment could be another grounds.

  11. EricaKane says:

    I believe portions of the FDCPA apply to creditors, but not all of it.

  12. SOhp101 says:

    AOL is free now… as long as you don’t need an ISP.

    And if you need an ISP but don’t want to spend a lot, go with the cheapest AT&T DSL plan–$9.95/mo. Most other telcos also have really cheap plans although not as cheap as that one.

  13. henwy says:

    Pay your bills you damn deadbeats.

  14. rockdork says:

    Some jerk stole my credit card number and opened three AOL accounts. Upon discovering the charges, I called AOL to cancel the accounts. They first tried to blame it on my children (I have none) and then my spouse (utterly insulting). Why I would sign up for three accounts was beyond comprehension, yet they would not refund the charges. With insistence I did get the accounts canceled and then I reversed the previous charges through my bank. Later I learned that the bank never recovered the funds because it was not worth their time to deal with AOL. On top of that, I also discovered that the jerk used one of the accounts for auction fraud on eBay. Despite that my vigilance prevented the auction from completion, eBay still tried to collect their fee from me. An altogether exasperating experience.

    AOL = evil.
    AOL + eBay = hell.

  15. dragonfire81 says:

    These tactics aren’t restricted to AOL, I used to work for a large wireless provider and we used similar measures to recoup debts.

  16. Pro-Pain says:

    I have broadband and aol is free and I STILL wouldn’t download that garbage. Can you believe somebody @ TimeWarner thought aol would be a good purchase? That’s friggin’ hilarious.

  17. wackyvorlon says:

    That is really badly written. It’s barely readable as it stands, I wonder who wrote it?

  18. curmudgeon5 says:

    I love the advice about saying “with AOL” in a lower tone or while the customer is talking, in order to imply it will harm their credit overall, not just their credit with AOL. I especially like how the guide is totally shameless about the fact that this is blatantly an attempt to deceive.

  19. bohemian says:

    Ah, AOL brings back memories from the dial up era. Like how Gateway used to install it on all their new systems with 30 days free. But of course that and the ongoing AOL fees depended on you living somewhere they had a local number or you would run up hundreds of dollars in out of area long distance fees on your phone bill. Then these people would be unable to cancel AOL (as usual). The icing on the cake was the uninstall of some of these versions of AOL software would toast the TCP/IP so they had to format their system in order to use it with any other ISP.

  20. ecwis says:

    Ha I like this part…

    NOTE: You can use as a confirmation number the last digits of the AOL account or a combination between the last digits and the date when you are taking the payment. There is no actual confirmation number but the member will feel safer if he is provided with a proof that he/she made the payment.

  21. TPK says:

    @Crumbles: I don’t think anyone could (or would) have made up all this stuff… Much easier to believe that AOL employees can’t write proper English.

    This document is a disgruntled employees dream! How has this not made it to the desk of the Attorney General?

  22. unravel says:

    I wonder how many of those they’re trying to collect from, that have accounts that have gone unused for at least a month…. are people who called in and tried to cancel in the past, and/or were told their cancellations had gone through.

    It blows my mind that there are people out there still paying for AOL, especially at full price. My husband pays $14.95. (I wonder if this is grounds for divorce should I ever need one… ‘Your Honor, he gladly uses AOL!’).

    I love the tips & clip art. It’s like a For Dummies book gone horribly wrong (not that I’ve seen one of those go right, but you know)

  23. WraithSama says:

    @Crumbles:
    Well, if it is a fake, they author is dedicated to the lie to draft a 153 page document.

  24. nyaz says:

    the only good thing about AOL, is back in 97 me and my brother would cancel our subscription, and they’d offer us another month free. This went on for probably 6 months. SUCKAS.

  25. Justin42 says:

    Pretty fascinating reading, really. I love this, what to say when the customer asks for a confirmation number (first saying to make it up, then insisting to the customer it’s proof.):

    You can use as a confirmation number the last digits of the AOL account or a combination between the last digits and the date when you are taking the payment. There is no actual confirmation number but the member will feel safer if he is provided with a proof that he/she made the payment.

    MBR: Can you send me a letter of confirmation that I paid and there’s no more balance
    on the account?
    C.A.: The confirmation number that I gave you a few seconds ago is the proof that there was a payment and you have no more balance.

  26. OsiUmenyiora says:

    Steve Case is my ficking idol — sold AOL at the height of its overinflated value to the morons at Time Warner just before the dotcom bubble blew up and cheap broadband became the norm, then took the money and built a pineapple plantation in Hawaii. I wish I was him.

  27. Bill Brasky says:

    wow…Just wow.

  28. dakotad555 says:

    Anyone using AOL falls into the category of folks who shop at Wal-mart, Best (worst) Buy or any other merchant that is notorious for sucking.

    On another note, the person they hired to write all 153 pages of this garbage needs to go back to college for basic composition. That’s what they hoped to use to train their employees… It would be funny if it wasn’t so evil.

  29. chrylis says:

    @Crumbles: You’d be surprised at how poorly-written many business documents (both internal and external!) are. As for the excerpts above, the only grammar problems I saw were using “that” for a person (instead of “who”) and inconsistent capitalization, both of which are common, especially in internal documentation.

    I call tentatively legit until more evidence is in; in either case, the very fact that there’s a debate over its authenticity is testament enough to AOL’s well-earned reputation.

  30. BigBoat says:

    “I won’t bill you (AOL will)”. Agency–>Fraud.

    Looking forward to that multi-multi-multi-million dollar class action.

  31. Pylon83 says:

    @BigBoat:
    Your comment —> Makes no sense

    There is no context (and not even a reference to a selection of the manual) to make it understandable. Try again, please.

  32. ceriphim says:

    Haha… Oh man. I remember using cc-gens to create 3- to 4-day accounts on AOL before my friends and I turned 18. Those were the days. The by-the-hour charges were still ridiculous back then, and it took less than thirty minutes to phish up a bunch of l/ps from guillible suckers for us to use for the next few days. And to order endless amounts of AOL guidebooks for $30 a pop…

    Then my dad found all my AOL and CC-gen programs and deleted ‘em. Thought he taught me a lesson. Three hours later I was back at it. And they say parents *nowadays* are oblivious…

  33. Ke says:

    @unravel: Hahaha, I was just thinking of the For Dummies books.

    I am so glad I got rid of AOL years ago but these tactics really do not seem surprising. I realize I might be paranoid but I often expect big companies to follow similar rules, only because their focus has gone from customer service to getting money.

  34. BigBoat says:

    @Pylon83: Well you did say “please”.

    After reading the article today I jumped around other AOL posts and came across this one: [consumerist.com]
    where in fact my comment would have made more sense. I confused the source of a heinous AOL policy, which in my defense, there exists a fuckton.

  35. humphrmi says:

    Can’t we all just get along? :)

    Probably more fsck-ed up, codified policy exists at AOL than can be posted here at Consumerist. Can we agree that pretty much all AOL policy sucks, and therefore mis-quoting one stupid policy doesn’t matter, since it’s (A) probably true (albeit unrelated to the topic at hand) and (B) always in AOL’s favor, which is why you shouldn’t do business with them in the first place, and why there should be plenty of comments here about AOL suckage.

  36. ShortBus says:

    @EricaKane: No, the FDCPA doesn’t apply to original creditors at all (even the scummy ones). However, several states have FDCPA-like consumer protection laws that *do* cover original creditors (Michigan being one). Additionally, original creditors are subject to the FCRA and the FCBA.

  37. mike says:

    Am I the only one that’s getting a bit suspicious with these posts of people providing “exclusive” information because they work there?

    Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure that there are many people that work for evil companies that want to com clean. But sometimes stuff like this just looks “too evil” to be true.

    I feel like the consumerist needs to do more verification before posting stuff like this. Or it just looks like someone created a fake book, scanned it, and e-mailed it just to make AOL look bad.

    In a side note:
    @mom22bless: People still pay for AOL?
    Seriouslly…who does this anymore?

  38. Erwos says:

    Funny – I always tell people who try the “let me talk to my supervisor” trick on me that I’m an f’ing engineer and they don’t get to just run up the ladder because they don’t like what I’m telling them. Executive escalations are generally BS from my experience, which is why I often have mixed feelings about the EECBs promoted here – for every good one, there are probably like nine others that could have gone through regular channels.

    Everyone thinks they’re a unique snowflake who deserves supervisor access immediately. Generally, you’re not.

  39. AOL was king during the dialup era, but people moved on. Now if you want a completely needless service, full of spam and potentially violating your privacy, you sign up for Myspace.

  40. bluewyvern says:

    @sohmc: And yet, when someone posts a “confession” that isn’t full of heinous misdeeds and crimes against humanity, everybody jumps all over them for being lame. Can’t win.

    @Erwos: You’re probably good at what you do and do your best to help people. Unfortunately, as we’re seeing from all these confessions and internal documents and personal experience, the customer service biz in general is pretty broken, and most CSRs seem too incompetent, apathetic, or powerless to provide good and honest customer service, so going through the “regular channels” is increasingly fruitless. Sad times.

  41. cortana says:

    @Pro-Pain: Can you believe somebody @ TimeWarner thought aol would be a good purchase?

    Remember. AOL bought Time-Warner. Not the other way around. Still, it was a huge mistake.

  42. sleze69 says:

    God…when will companies with failing business models just give up and die? I’m looking at you AOL and RIAA.

  43. Flynn says:

    Hmm. I had a run in with Bank of America recently, and the “our supervisor is unavailable” line was probably exactly what AOL recommends. I wonder how many other companies are doing things like this to keep costs down/avoid discussion?

  44. sleepydumbdude says:

    This is awesome. Damn I hate AOL. I only paid for it maybe 3 months out of the 2+ years I had it though. Everytime I would call I would say there was a problem with the software and my connection getting dropped a lot. I’d get 2-3 months free from it. Anyways when I was going to upgrade to broadband I was going to sign up for AOL BB or high speed, I don’t know what it was called. Then on the phone they told me I already needed a high speed connection to use it and they didn’t offer it. Thats when I knew it would all be downhill from there.

  45. Pro-Pain says:

    @cortana – I stand corrected. Oops. NOW I can’t believe that aol was ever worth that much money, lol! I’m actually glad to watch their demise. I got a $300 bill from them for dial up once. That was an ouchie…

  46. KD17 says:

    I almost can’t believe AOL is still around. Yeah sure when dial up was the way to go, but I don’t know why anyone would use them now.

    I’ve been with Comcast for about 5 years or so and while they have made their share of mistakes I have never had to much of a trouble getting things straightened out.

    I and everyone I knew had nothing but problems with AOL back in the day. I would have to call them probably once a month to fix some kind of billing error and it was always a real pain to get it fixed.

  47. you know, if people payed their bills then there would’nt be tactics like this out there. Let’s face it, people will always find a way out of SOMETHING without paying. It’s been like that since the beginning of time. Purchase an oxen, don’t pay the man, his cousins show up at your farm and beat you up ’till you pay or turn over the oxen. Buy a car, skip out on payments, try to hide on the grid, then expect to be tracked down by collectors and have your ford truck towed away at 3AM. It’s so easy to take sides against companies like AOL. But what about those who signed on with them to begin with? If I owe the devil my soul because I made a bargain with him, then I’m expected to pay up. If I don’t deal with the devil then I owe him nothing. It’s as easy as that. Do I believe in him? Of course I do. They say it’s the devil’s best trick, to lead you to believe he does’nt exist. Yet I believe in the devil and I stay away because I’m not so foolish to believe I can’t be seduced by his mind games. I believe in AOL and yet I will never fall into their trap because I refuse to knowingly fall in step with them.

  48. chartrule says:

    the royal bank of Canada use to send AOL cd’s to all their clients (they have alot of clients)

    their cd’s always made the best coasters

  49. newfenoix says:

    I had my run ins with AOL also. The last time was in 2004 when I had my laptop at the store that I was managing. The owner was too cheap to go with DSL so AOL was the only option for internet. My anti-virus caught 10 virus in a role and tracked the IP. But you can guess where they originated from…AOL HQ itself. I sent a certified letter to AOL and to our state’s AG office. AOL sent replied about a month later and “asked” me to find another ISP. I will never deal with these fools again.

  50. Smooooth says:

    “You are asking the right questions because you already have the answers.
    For example:
    the member says he canceled the AOL account – ask WHEN because you already know that there is no cancelation;
    if he/she tells you a date – ask WHAT is the confirmation number and/or the date on the cancelation letter he received from AOL after the cancelation. You know he doesn’t have any letter;
    if the customer claims to have already paid 2 ask HOW because you know that as long as the account still has a ballance that’s not possible.”

    Yes, AOL is completely infallible. If the screen says the customer never cancelled, obviously the customer never cancelled! Oh and I loved this part:

    “One second please till I process the payment and give you the confirmation
    number. OK….the payment went through, the balance is now 0. Please write down
    the confirmation number. It’s xxxxxx

    NOTE: You can use as a confirmation number the last digits of the AOL
    account or a combination between the last digits and the date when you are
    taking the payment. There is no actual confirmation number but the
    member will feel safer if he is provided with a proof that he/she made the
    payment.”

    So, let’s say AOL calls me because I’m delinquent on my account. I say, fine, I’ll pay it, here’s my credit card number. AOL gives me a confirmation code.

    5 days later, I get another call because the last rep didn’t properly record the transaction. I tell him I’ve already paid and provide my confirmation number. Oh but wait, that number’s made up! So they’ll RUIN MY CREDIT….

    ….with AOL.

    Man, glad I never subscribed!

  51. Smooooth says:

    This quote was supposed to be in my last comment:

    “MBR: Can you send me a letter of confirmation that I paid and there’s no more balance on the account?
    C.A.: The confirmation number that I gave you a few seconds ago is the proof that there was a payment and you have no more balance. And you will also see the AOL
    charge on your next credit card statement. Unfortunately AOL does not send confirmation letters for taking payments.”

    Ahh, so THAT’S how they know I don’t have a letter when they call!

  52. littlemoose says:

    This manual had some truly atrocious grammar. The crime is mostly in the run-on sentences. And, as a few posters stated above, it is sadly not uncommon for business documents to be poorly written.

  53. nardo218 says:

    It’s nice to know that if you don’t use this guideline in your job, you can complain to HR that you didn’t understand a fucking word of it.

    Dear Corporate America: I have an MA in writing, but since I do not wish to teach bratty children from 8 to 80, I am unhirable in most sectors, except yours. Please hire me to write your internal documents. You really, really need me. I’m not kidding.

  54. nardo218 says:

    @sohmc: *sigh* My aunt does. She even has broadband, but she thinks she can’t get to her email without aol. I’ve tried nad tried to tell her that she doesn’t need the aol screen, she just needs to open IE, but she doesn’t get it.

  55. TruPhan says:

    @nardo218: Unfortunately, she probably never will. I’m a web designer, and one of the current trends that is finally being studied is how the average person thinks the internet works, and fellas, we’re the exception. The truth is, the average person thinks just like Nardo’s grandmother in worst-case-scenarios, and best case? Most people think that Google is an ISP, and that to get to websites, you have to use its search function. A majority of Yahoo’s searches are URLs typed into the search box because people think it’s an address bar. The worst part about it is, this yields the result the user desires. They get to their website or obtain the information they were searching for, so they never have any motivation to become more effective or efficient when it comes to using the web.

    But to get back on topic, my first thoughts when I read this article’s headline was, “AOL? What year is this? 1992?”

  56. rmz says:

    @nardo218: If you truly can’t understand a word of it because of some poor grammar, that says frightening things about your cognitive ability.

    Protip: if you claim something to be incomprehensible because of some poor grammar, you’ve evidently never come into contact with anyone outside of your Ph.D study group circle. Get out and realize that not everybody brandishes the flawless mastery of the written word that you do.

  57. darundal says:

    @TruPhan: Yeah, one time I had someone ask me what site they should go to so that they could check their mail. I ask them who the mail account is with and they say Outlook.

  58. unklegwar says:

    I like how it’s en vogue to side with the debtor. Who is in the wrong here? The deadbeat who doesn’t pay the bill.

    Yet, everyone comes down on the company for trying to collect money legitimately owed them. When you deal with scummy people, sometimes you have to stoop.

  59. cerbie says:

    @Erwos: maybe, but that doesn’t mean those regular channels worked, even if they should have. The regular channels should be designed so that escalations are either well defined and used, or not necessary. As it is, they tend to be ways to pass the buck.

  60. rmz says:

    @unklegwar: How many articles have been posted here about accounts being wrongly forwarded to collections, though? Just because an account has been sent to collections, it doesn’t imply that the account holder is a “scummy person” and a “deadbeat who doesn’t pay the bill.”

  61. Poster99 says:

    I love the section on Page 73 regarding confirmation numbers…

    C.A. One second please till I process the payment and give you the confirmation
    number. OK….the payment went through, the balance is now 0. Please write down
    the confirmation number. It’s xxxxxx

    NOTE: You can use as a confirmation number the last digits of the AOL
    account or a combination between the last digits and the date when you are
    taking the payment. There is no actual confirmation number but the
    member will feel safer if he is provided with a proof that he/she made the
    payment.

    MBR: Can you send me a letter of confirmation that I paid and there’s no more balance
    on the account?

    C.A.: The confirmation number that I gave you a few seconds ago is the proof that there
    was a payment and you have no more balance. And you will also see the AOL
    charge on your next credit card statement. Unfortunately AOL does not send
    confirmation letters for taking payments.

  62. humperdinck says:

    @curmudgeon5: Yeah the tone of voice/pause thing was hilariously awful.

    “This could be the end of the world! (Of Warcraft.)”

  63. Ayanamifan says:

    I used to work at a telemarketing company signing people up for AOL. Well, tricking them into signing up is a better term, I think.

    I am quite familiar with their lingo and the programs they use (Merlin, for example).

    This is defiantly the company guide lines or an ex-employee with a whole crap load of time on their hands. It looks too much like the stuff that was rammed down my throat to be an ex-employee though.

    Worst. Job. Ever.

    Though, I did learn some sales … ‘techniques’ that are pretty good. As long as you don’t feel bad about tricking people into signing up for something they don’t want.

    AOL Keyword: SUCKER would be PERFECT for you because …

  64. WraithSama says:

    @KD17:
    The writing’s on the wall for AOL and NetZero. Neither have the ability to provide broadband access, only dial-up. Broadband usage is at an all-time high, and soon everyone will be on board. The market for these archaic companies is shrinking and soon they’ll end up insolvent.