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From the Mailbag...

AOL ad Nauseam, Redux

Dateline: 02/03/00

Dear Guide:

Hey, I got this and didn't know whether it was real or not, and I didn't see it on the list of urban legends. I doubt it's real, but let me know if it is. Thanks.

Sent: Monday, January 31, 2000 10:28 PM
Subject: [Fwd: Fwd: AOL is taking away instant messenger!]

Dear America Online and Instant Messages users
    Our america online staff is planning to take away im by July 14th 2000. If you want to keep our im free of charge, send ths email to everyone you know. it will be used as a petition. EAch person you send this to counts as one "signature" If this petition gets 100,000 "signatures they will keep AOL im. If they do not recieve 100,000 votes you will have to pay 15.00 to have im.(per month) If you don't care about about this then please for everyones sake help out a little. THank you for your time and consideration and please help Aol beat thier vote.

* * *

Dear Reader:

Here's an Internet fact of life: old hoaxes never die. Like vampires, they roam cyberspace eternally, spreading fear and sucking bandwidth wherever they rear their ugly heads. This one – you're right, it's not real – has been popping up regularly for the past two years. Here's what I wrote about it 17 months ago (and by the way, my offer at the end of the commentary still stands):

Dateline: 08/26/98

What would a day on America Online be without a phony password theft alert or another bogus email petition against AOL policies showing up amidst the spam in your mailbox?

"Any allegation that America Online is planning to take away (or start charging for) the Instant Message feature is false."

AOL Keyword:
Neighborhood Watch

Don't get me wrong – I'm not suggesting that the fears piqued by this constant stream of misinformation are totally unfounded. Password theft is a serious problem on AOL, and the company's rate hike for unlimited access earlier this year caught many members by surprise and angered more than a few who were already disappointed with the quality of their service.

But failing to keep informed as to what the real problems are sets members up to be suckers for pranksters, of which there are plenty to be found among America Online's 13 million or so users [as of September 1998].

Case in point: the latest bogus petition to circulate on The World's Largest Internet Service alleges that AOL is planning to eliminate and/or charge extra fees for Instant Messages, one of its core features:

Subj: Fwd: Important Notice from America Online's Staff.
Date: 98-08-20 19:34:52 EDT

Dear America Online and Instant Message users,

Our America Online staff is planning to take away our Instant messages by September 14,1998. If you want to keep your Instant Messages free of charge,send this mail to everyone you know. It will be used as a petition. Each person you send this to, counts as one "signature." If this petition gets 1,000 "signatures," our Instant Messages will still be avaliable at no extra charge. If America Online does not recieve 1,000 "signatures," Instant Messages will still be avaliable, but only to those who pay an extra 15.00 dollars a month. If you do not care about not getting any future Instant Messages, please send this for the sake of those who want to keep thier Instant Messages free of charge. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Robert McDoggan

America Online
Assistance Director

The claims are absurd. Instant messaging is one of the hottest things going on the Internet-at-large, where it's available to everyone free of charge. AOL would shoo members away in droves if it suddenly demanded a $15 per month surcharge for the same service. AOL's executives know that.

And why would anybody suppose that a mere 1,000 "signatures" – representing the views of approximately .001 percent of AOL members – would be sufficient to influence America Online's pricing policies?

Lastly, this is not the first time a "save our Instant Messages" petition has circulated. Another, very similar one went around just last month:

Forwarded Message:
Subj: bye bye ..............
Date: 98-06-20 12:07:44 EDT

Hi everyone.
Im's (instant messages) will be taken away on july 18. AOL has agreed to keep them if enough people want to, and every person that reads this and passes it on counts as a signature on the petition. so please read, then send to everyone you know with this same message if you want to keep the Instant message feature on America Online!!

Thanks for your time and cooperation.

Well, July 18 has come and gone. IMs are still with us and so is the phony petition, albeit revamped with a new expiration date. AOL is not planning to eliminate or charge extra fees for Instant Messages, believe me.

Tell you what. If it turns out I'm wrong and AOL suddenly does begin asking $15 a month for IMs as of September 14, I'll eat my hard drive and broadcast it live over the Internet.

How's that for debunking?

AOL members can find information about email hoaxes and scams at Keyword: Neighborhood Watch. Members are encouraged to forward suspected hoax messages to: TOSEmail@aol.com.

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