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Mission Impossible

Notes on trying to terminate America Online

January 08, 2006|Lawrence Grobel | Lawrence Grobel is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and the author of several books, including "The Art of the Interview" (Three Rivers Press, 2004).

After six years of being infected by viruses and inundated with spam, having my address book add unfamiliar addresses, calling technical support and being put on hold and speaking to people who cannot fathom the frustration that brought on the call, I finally told America Online that I couldn't take it any longer. I have turned down every new offer, every reduction in fees from $26.95 to $9 a month. So now, finally and forever, I'm free of AOL.

But it wasn't an easy habit to kick. Those soothing sirens in the cancellation department wouldn't let me leave. They gave me six months' free service. They extolled the virtues of the next upgrade. Each time I called to cancel they cleverly got me to renew--until this last time when I clicked on the triangular symbol on my desktop and the computer shut down with a warning that a "serious error" had occurred. I reported the error to my server, and they told me it was caused by a problem with AOL. So I called AOL, and got someone in Bangalore, India.

"My name is Shaysh," he said. I asked him to spell it. "S-A-T-I-S-H."

"Satish, I've gone through this before with someone in New Delhi and halfway through we lost our connection. I'm calling from Los Angeles. Could you give me your direct line so I can call you back if that happens?"

"We can't do that, sir."

"Then can I give you my number and you can call me?"

"We have no outside calling lines," he said. "Now, what is your problem?"

I told him that my computer shuts down when I try to open AOL. He said he had never heard of such a problem and asked me to click on. I did, and the computer shut down. So he had me go into my programs, then into my settings, onto the control panel, into my C drive. He asked me to find AOL in the add/remove section of the control panel. There it was. All 119KB. He said we would uninstall it and then reinstall it. I clicked to remove it, and a little box came up saying my computer could not find AOL.

He said we must clean up the programs that aren't useful, so he took me to another area of the computer where there were 35 programs listed. He said I needed only seven of them and should delete the others. I clicked on one, which caused a large red X to appear with a warning that my computer would shut down in 30 seconds.

"What's going on, Satish?" I asked.

He told me not to worry. "Let it close down and we will open it again and go to another place."

We did. AOL was in the computer but wasn't showing itself. It didn't want to be terminated.

"We need to scan the computer," he said, "and then to defragment. This will take a few hours."

"Satish, I want to get rid of AOL."

"First, we must find it," he said.

He had me write down instructions about how to scan and then defragment.

"I'm not comfortable doing this," I said. "What if I screw something up?"

"Let me get you on with my supervisor and he will reassure you."

He put me on hold for 10 minutes. I started scanning, and then we got cut off. I had no case number to refer to. I wasn't sure what to do about defragmenting. I didn't know what defragmenting was.

So I called AOL again. Went through all the identification rituals and waited. Finally, I heard the sweet voice of senior consultant Edlina.

"Don't worry," she said. "I can solve your problem."

"My problem is that I don't want you to try and keep me as a customer. I've been with you for six years and I can't take it anymore."

"Can I get you to a technician who will work with you?" she asked.

"Only if you can find one in this country. I don't want to talk to any more Indians. I can't always understand what they're saying, and I always seem to get cut off in the middle of an operation."

I was experiencing the end result of outsourcing jobs. I didn't like hearing what I was saying, especially because I think Edlina was Indian. She switched me to Frank in the technical department.

"Are you in the United States, Frank?"

"Yes, I am."

"Can you call me back if we get disconnected?"

"Afraid I can't."

"Can you talk me through this fast?"

"If you're still scanning, then it's going to take a few hours to defragment."

"Then what?"

"Then go to control panel, click on add/remove, find AOL and remove it."

"What if the box comes up again saying it's not in my computer?"

"Then you will have to install from the disk and uninstall it."

"I don't have a disk."

"They're in supermarkets and Blockbusters."

"I have to go to a Ralphs or Vons?"

"They're free."

"But if I install it, what about the one that is hiding in my computer?"

Frank got quiet. He knew that the stealth AOL living in some Afghani cave portion of my hard drive was not going to come out easily.

"Let's take it a step at a time," he said.

I hung up with Frank. Once the scanning was completed, I clicked on the defragment box, left my desk and returned three hours later. My computer was defragmented. I went to the control panel and tried to remove AOL.

I was told that it didn't exist inside my computer.

I called the next day and told the lovely new voice that I wanted out. I didn't care about saving my address book, my personal finance portfolio or the 40 unanswered e-mails. I didn't want to install more AOL in my computer so that I could uninstall it later. I would just have to live with this digital Osama bin Laden hiding inside. I didn't care any longer.

So AOL finally accepted that I didn't want what they had to offer, even if it was free. Once they did, I let my personal world know it. I shouted to my books, my paintings, my desk and my computer that I was free. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, I was free at last!

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