Story of a Web Hosting Nightmare
The AITcom Page
No, I am not recommending a web hosting service--just the opposite, in fact. I don't know how much traffic this site will draw, but if even just a few people catch on to what AIT is doing by seeing this page, it's worth it. It also helps to vent a little.
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AIT comes across at first like a reputable service, and I am sure some people never have a problem. However, far more people than usual have horror stories to tell about this particular web host, and I am one of them. Of course, the web host industry is a new one, and so with few reputations at all built up as of yet, it is easy to get caught by a bad service.
I was first introduced to AIT in October 1999 by a friend who
was using them. As I did not know of any web hosting services
at all, I was prone to trust someone I knew who had used the service
and could vouch for it. In the end, this friend and a few others
were burned by AIT as well, in much the same way I was. At first,
AIT was OK. The main problem I had with them was that my email
often got slow--very slow. It was never enough to stop me cold,
but was annoying all the same. But aside from these minor technical
glitches things seemed to be going fine.
When the first real problem came, I was not even aware of it--and that was the problem. It was in September of 2000, when AIT exercised its "we can do whatever the hell we want" clause in its online agreement. It's actually a fairly standard clause:
|9. CHANGES IN TERMS OF AGREEMENT: AIT reserves the right to make changes to the terms and conditions of this Agreement at any time, and to the on-line application to include service pricing, advising of the change and the effective date thereof by publishing it to the appropriate AIT web site, but with changes in service fees being effective only at the end of any period for which the Customer has prepaid. Utilization of the Service by the Customer following the effective date of such change shall constitute acceptance by the Customer of such change(s). Customer is solely responsible for staying informed with respect to changes in this Agreement, the application, Acceptable Use Policy and Billing Policy, all of which are published on-line and readily available for public viewing.
In effect, what it says is that AIT can make any changes to your agreement without directly notifying you; if you do not check the agreement posted on their site every month and notice any and all changes, then continuing to use their service is construed as consent to the new terms. AIT could hike your rates, bind you to a contract of any length, or make outrageous changes to just about any item in the contract, and if you don't keep an eagle eye and re-read their legalese every month, you're counted as being in full agreement and bound to every last change.
This clause is usually accepted by consumers as being the only reasonable way the company which they buy services from can make reasonable and necessary changes to that service; for example, if they need to make a change to the service agreement to discourage spamming, it would be impossible for them to contact and receive in return email from every single customer on the issue. Not everyone would reply, and tracking them down would be a nightmare--ergo the clause.
So the customer accepts the sweeping powers this gives the provider, assuming the provider will use the clause only in good faith--that is, it is assumed that the company will not abuse the clause to rob the customer blind, and will make a good faith effort to contact the customer in any case.
AIT abused that faith.
In late 2000, they felt it necessary to switch all of their
customers from a 1-month recurring billing cycle to a 6-month contract. They claim they sent emails to
all of their customers, but I do not recall receiving one, and
neither do two of my friends who also used AIT at that time--even though we did receive other email from AIT. One
can only presume that AIT buried it deep within one of their regular
"newsletters" they use to try to get you to buy more
stuff from them. Certainly they sent no special email titled,
"NOTICE -- CONTRACT CHANGES TO BE ENACTED." Anyone who
signed on to their service on a month-by-month basis was therefore locked
into a 6-month contract starteing November 1st. Those who wanted
to move to a new web host later than that had to pay AIT through
May 1st the next year, whether or not they actually used the service.
Furthermore, AIT continues to the time of this writing (12/2001) to pretend they charge month-by-month. Go to their main page*, and you will see that no mention of a 6-month contract is mentioned--but they do advertise "Web Hosting Monthly," and give the monthly rate. Visit their hosting plans page* and the only mention of a 6-month contract is within a very conditional clause (*UPDATE: Their web pages have been changed since this writing, the prior language altered):
New Customers: No Set-up Fee if switching from a competitor and hosting with AIT for 6 months. This offer does not apply to existing AIT customers.
Other than that, one could go through the entire sign-up process
and never see 6 months mentioned, except as buried in the online
agreement, which most people (as I am sure AIT counts on) do not
read. You will, however, see the "monthly" plans and
rates quoted in many places. Not only did AIT try to trap their
existing companies, they also continue to try to fool incoming
customers as well.
What to hear a good one? On their main page, AIT claims they are "Rated #1 in the Industry by Ratehosts"--they even have a graphic to that effect, though it is not a click-through as such things usually are.
I did a WHOIS on www.ratehosts.com, and guess what? Both ratehosts.com and ratehosts.net are owned by AIT, under the name "RateHost A Hostmaster." Cute, huh?
But here's the kicker: try going to either one of those sites, and you see the message, "Payment Required .... Please contact the server administrator, ... and inform them of ... anything you might have done that may have caused the error."
Not only do they create a fake award for themselves, but they
deny themselves service because they forgot to pay their bills
UPDATE: 2 1/2 years
later, they finally seem to have paid their bills; the site is up, and
their "main sponsor" is AIT. What a surprise.
So there I was, continuing on as an oblivious AIT 6-month contractee, when AIT hits me with the second big whallop--and again, I have no idea they've done it. Although the agreement is for AIT to continue billing me, for some reason known only to them, they stopped. They never did tell me why, despite my asking them by phone and email more than a dozen times. I guess they simply screwed up and didn't care.
They didn't care enough to contact me, in fact. Naturally, later on, they claimed to have tried, "several times." Right. If they actually did try, whatever method they used to contact me failed--I was never notified of their foulup, and as a result, a few months later, I get yanked off the Internet.
I get this good news by seeing my email malfunction--as it had a while back, it was taking forever to establish a connection. I emailed support to report the problem, and was told: " I did find some library issues which have slowed things down, so I have corrected those, and everything seems to be working MUCH more efficiently."
One day later my account gets yanked. I try to access my email, and nothing happens. Then I try my web site--gone. No response. I email them via an alternate address and get one of their "Hello I understand that" form letter replies, which I was to get sick and tired of very soon. This email was charmingly phrased:
Hello I understand that your email is not working. Your site has been shut down due to nonpayment.
How delightful. Came as quite a shock, I might add, since they were handling the payments, and never told me what was wrong (before or after). So I call their toll-free support number, which is not toll-free for me as I live overseas. Their support people tell me that I stopped paying; I point out that I never stopped anything, that was their responsibility. Then they claim that they sent me email notification, which I never got. I ask them what it will take to get me back online, and they claim they can't figure out how much I owe--they'll get back to me on that. I CLEARLY stated that they were NOT to bill me without telling me what the charges were. They tell me they will contact me soon to tell me--the first of many overt lies.
Within a few days, I am put back up on the net, no explanation, no notification. No return call or email. Apparently they went against my express instructions and billed me without my consent. Well, I have my service back, but the email is still glacial. So I send more email, and get several automatic email replies telling me worthless information about my ticket status, followed by the inevitable "Hello I understand that" email telling me they'll work on it.
In the meantime, I phone them because I still don't know why they started billing against my instructions, nor for how much. The support rep says she can see I've been billed, but she doesn't know how much, and doesn't know why AIT stopped billing in the first place. But she'll get back to me.
From there on things start going downhill. There seem to be a half dozen emails in my account which will not download. They say they will try to fix the problem, but I get tired of waiting; I download a few other email clients and one of them finally is able to clear the pipeline. The email that was clogging the account was from AIT--a notice that while my service had been restored I had not been billed--despite having been told over the phone that I WAS billed. I email them on this, and never get a reply.
Then my glacial-email problem finally gets
fixed--for two hours. Then my domain gets yanked again. I email
and call. They claim the problem is fixed. It is not. I complain
again. The site comes back on. But my passwords don't work. Another
call. It gets fixed. But now the email is glacial again. Then
a day later, the site goes down again. I call and email again,
and it comes back on. This time CGI is disabled (it never gets
back on again), completely disrupting my business even while the
site is up and working. Then the site crashes again. Again a call
and email. Again the site comes back up. An hour later, a tech
person emails to tell me he's changing the IP number (AFTER it
was working already), and it takes two days for the IP to resolve,
another two days of down time. Then it crashes again. In all,
over two week's time, my domain crashes no less than six times.
The ONLY explanation I ever got as to why it was happening was
a side reference by a tech support rep over the phone, who casually
blamed every single glitch on the Nimda virus, then shut up.
But that wasn't even the most frustrating thing, the crashes and malfunctions. No, it was their helpful support mechanism.
Now, their support line works like this: you call up, and an operator answers. Said operator usually asks for your customer number and transfers you immediately, but every third call or so, they ask for the problem, and after you spend five minutes explaining, THEN they tell you that they're just an operator and hold on a second while I transfer you. And of course, if you get an actual tech rep afterward, they know nothing about your case.
That is, IF you get a support rep. That is far from certain. Rarely a rep actually answers your call immediately. Sometimes you hear a phone ringing for minutes on end. Usually, you get the "Your Call Is Important To Us And While You're Holding Listen To These Ads" recording, which means that you will be on hold for about five minutes until you get the recording telling you to "Leave a Message and We'll Get Right Back to You." Which, of course, never happens.
Once, when I called at some ungodly hour so as to be able to talk to someone, I asked them to call me back as I was by then paying a fortune in international phone calls. No problem, they said; we'll call you back in just a minute. Ten minutes pass. I call back. "He never called back? Tell me your number; I'll call you back immediately." Another ten minutes pass, no call. I call again and get the hold-and-record-a-message bit. Enraged by now, I call back and practically have to threaten the operator to ensure I get put through, and am told that they were late because they were "looking for the international codes," which is complete bullshit, as I had GIVEN them the international codes, and markedly told them what it was.
By the end of the line, I had the frustrating experience of
trying to get through to billing (story down below), and after getting the hold-and-record-a-message line too often, asked a
rep to assure me someone would answer. He said he'd make sure,
but the line rang on for a few minutes before I gave up. So I
called back, and told the new operator what had happened. He actually
laughed and said he'd NEVER promise anyone that someone would
answer. I told him my problem and that repeated emails had gone
unanswered, and that I was not getting through at all--and he
steadfastly refused to put me through to anyone. Just leave a
message, and We'll Get Back To You. All of this in days when international phone calls were still not so cheap.
Lesson belatedly learned: don't even try.
So why was I even trying? Well, because the good people at AIT had overcharged me, is why.
I might not even have checked, except that, having gotten fed up, I searched the Internet trying to see what others were saying about AIT. Turns out I was not alone, not by a long shot. I found endless complaints, including many claims of overcharging. Suspicious, I tried to get to my billing page. It did not come through, even though my user ID and password were correct. So I called AIT, and after some of the usual hassle, finally got through; they hacked my password and got me in.
Sure enough, there it was: they had indeed billed me a few weeks back. Billed me twice, in fact. Overcharged me by $94.75, or for five months' service. I told the billing rep about it, and he gave me a line of crapola that they had been trying to reimburse my credit card account but had trouble doing so. But We'll Get Right On It and the Money Will Be Back In Your Account in Three Days.
Gee, I can't wait.
In the meantime, no way in hell am I going to stay with these people. I want out. That's when I find out about the six-month contract they stuffed into my back pocket when I wasn't looking. To my good fortune, for a change, it just so happened that my current six-month sentence was just a few weeks away from ending. AIT had screwed me over just in time--had they done so a few weeks later, I would have been stuck with them for another six months, and would have been out $115 in the process.
So I tell them I want to quit. Not so fast, they say. Sure, we'll take your money and let you get on our service with just a click of the mouse on our secure web page. But to quit, you have to fill out a form online AND send a signed fax. See, when we take your money we just need your credit card number. To STOP taking your money, we need to be absolutely sure that you are who you say you are.
And you can't get off right away, either; you have to wait two days while we carefully inspect your signature.
As I said, I was lucky--I jumped out of the speeding car just as they turned the six-month corner, and rolled safely to a stop. From the complaints I read on-line, though, many people weren't so lucky. I warned my freinds who were also using AIT, and of course they were surprised to learn that there was any six-month thing going. I just feel sorry for the poor souls who just got stuck with AIT on November 1st....
One more thing: when I finally got notice they accepted my
cancellation, they urged me to fill out a form on their web page
to make sure my complaints were heard by management. I'm certain
you have already guessed what I found: the form, of course, did not
Five days after being promised a refund for the $95 overcharge, no money. Repeated emails and calls later, I get an email in reply:
Upon review of your account, I have found that you received a credit memo...
With no explanation as to what the hell a credit memo was,
naturally. I checked my billing page, and sure enough, it said
"credit memo" for the correct amount. Still nothing
anywhere about what the hell a "credit memo" is or how
I can spend it. Repeated emails asking about this went unanswered.
Certainly no money was sent to me or credited to my credit card
account, so I could only assume that a "credit memo"
was a credit against future charges from AIT. Problem was, I had,
by that time, cancelled my accounts a week earlier, and would
never spend another dime with them. Cute.
OK. Now I was pissed. I had just finished another infuriating round of phone calls and email with no results. I had had enough of the crappy customer service, the jerking around, the highway robbery in thirty-one assorted flavors. They were slated to double-charge me when my credit card account got paid on November 10th. So I decided to let loose one final round and then be done with them, even if the only remedy was to cancel my credit card and get a new one, and then deal with what the bastards would do to my credit record.
I found the Better Business Bureau online and made sure I knew a complaint could be filed (turns out, surprise surprise, AIT had been reported to them at least a few times before). Then I collected all the higher-level emails I could find on their site and fired off one big one, demanding they credit my card account NOW or else I report them to the BBB and cancel my credit card.
Within twelve minutes, I get an email voucher for a payment
to my credit card account for the correct amount. Within the five
minutes follwoing, I get two emails from different execs apologizing
and telling me that this kind of thing NEVER happens.
So it ends, right? Probably not. Many reports online claim that even after cancelling their accounts, former members continue to be billed. Several online horror stories tell of desperate victims cancelling their credit cards to get AIT off their backs, those who are not lucky enough to have credit card accounts that allow challenges to individual charges. So instead of leaving this behind me, I will have to check my credit card bills regularly for these people.
Go to the online forums (here and there, for example), and do some searching for some review sites, and see for yourself what people are saying about AITcom.net. But FOR GOD'S SAKE, don't make the mistake of actually paying them for services. You might get lucky, but my money is on the likelihood that you'll get mugged online.