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(HOST) Commentator Allen Gilbert took special note of a recent legal settlement involving the Internet service provider, America Online.

(GILBERT) Bravo for Eliot Spitzer.

Spitzer is New York’s attorney general. He has a reputation for using his position to fight for everyday folks. He trained his sights on a giant recently, the Internet service provider America Online, and he won a big settlement of more than a million dollars.

Spitzer’s office is top-notch. Staff there seek out consumer problems. They don’t wait for a problem to take on political dimensions before they’ll tackle it. They step up to the plate.

So when New York consumers started complaining about the difficulty in cancelling their AOL service, Spitzer took notice. He launched an investigation into why it seemed so hard to switch from AOL to another service provider.

What Spitzer found was that AOL bullied customers into staying with them. AOL had an elaborate incentive system for its custo- mer service representatives to persuade subscribers not to cancel. The incentives were worth thousands of dollars in bonuses.

I’m cheering especially hard for Eliot Spitzer on this one because I once subscribed to AOL and wanted to cancel. It took months of effort, and numerous letters and faxes to AOL and, finally, a complaint to the Vermont Attorney General’s office, to succeed.

The ruse that AOL used with me was to deny that they had ever received a fax requesting cancellation of service. Additionally, I was told that mail was still being sent to my AOL account, and therefore I could continue to be billed. I was told that I couldn’t appeal this determination, and that there wasn’t anyone at AOL to complain to.

I was incensed. I wrote the Attorney General’s Office a long letter. A staffer in its Consumer Assistance Program called me back for more details. He contacted AOL. AOL said it would cancel — but insisted that I still owed about $16 in past service charges. I refused the settlement, the AG’s office contacted AOL again, and AOL gave in.

In the final settlement letter, AOL’s billing operations and service supervisor wrote, “We sincerely apologize for the poor customer service experience Mr. Gilbert states he encountered .We assure you, this is not characteristic of the service we are continually striving to provide our members.”

Apparently, my experience *was* typical of the service that AOL was providing its members.

Helping consumers is no easy task. What can be done?

First, consumer protection agencies must be aggressive. Their focus needs to be broader than individual cases. They need to look for trends.

Second, we need to help consumer protection efforts. We need to take the time and initiative to complain when we’re not treated fairly. That might be a letter to the company that didn’t send you a rebate, or a call to the Consumer Assistance Program of the state Attorney General’s Office for help.

Over the years, Spitzer has shown that you *can* fight city hall, Wall Street, and major corporations — and win. We should thank him for this lesson, and take it to heart. The Eliot Spitzers of the world need us working with them.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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