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AT&T Businesses Communications The Almighty Buck Your Rights Online

AT&T Bills Elderly Customer $24,298.93 For Landline Dial-Up Service 234

McGruber writes: 83-year-old Woodland Hills, California resident Ron Dorff usually pays $51 a month to AT&T for a landline, which he uses to access the Internet via an old-school, low-speed AOL dial-up subscription.... but then, in March, AT&T sent him a bill for $8,596.57. He called AT&T and their service rep couldn't make heads or tails of the bill, so she said she'd send a technician to his house. None came, so Dorff figured that everything was ok.

Dorff's next monthly bill was for $15,687.64, bringing his total outstanding debt to AT&T, including late fees, to $24,298.93. If he didn't pay by May 8, AT&T warned, his bill would rise to at least $24,786.16. Droff then called David Lazarus, business columnist for the LA Times, who got in touch with AT&T, who wasted little time in deciding it would waive the more than $24,000 in charges.

AT&T spokeshole Georgia Taylor claims Dorff's modem somehow had started dialing a long-distance number when it accessed AOL, and the per-minute charges went into orbit as he stayed connected for hours.

AT&T declined to answer the LA Times questions about why AT&T didn't spot the problem itself and proactively take steps to fix things? AT&T also declined to elaborate on whether AT&T's billing system is capable of spotting unusual charges and, if so, why it doesn't routinely do so.
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AT&T Bills Elderly Customer $24,298.93 For Landline Dial-Up Service

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  • AT&T Autopay - Ha! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ohieaux ( 2860669 ) on Saturday May 02, 2015 @11:24AM (#49600321)
    AT&T keeps requesting that I enroll in autopay. I've resisted for fear of crap like this.
    • by monkeyzoo ( 3985097 ) on Saturday May 02, 2015 @11:47AM (#49600449)

      So, there was no billing error here. The guy actually had his modem making long-distance calls for inordinate amounts of time. Doesn't seem like an AT&T error. Though it definitely sucks for the old man/woman!

      What I don't get though is what the heck kind of plan he has. Even if he was online 24 hours a day for 30 days, to get to $15,687, that would mean a per-minute rate of $0.363!!!

      • When I moved into a new house, there was a problem with my landline, and it was randomly dialing numbers. Constantly. We had the police show up randomly a couple times as it dialed 911 for us, and I once got a bill for a couple thousand dollars.

        They eventually got around to waiving the fees and repairing the problem with the line, but my handiman almost got arrested when the police showed up and found a guy on a ladder drilling a hole through a wall.

        • When I moved into a new house, there was a problem with my landline, and it was randomly dialing numbers. Constantly.

          Pulse dialing? Was this in the Ozarks, or just a long long time ago?

          • It was probably a problem with the corner junction box servicing the area, as several years ago we had a similar problem in one of my customers neighborhoods and it turned out it was a mouse that was building a nest in the box and gnawing on the wires.

            You'd be surprised how often shit like this can be traced back to actual bugs and rodents, we had power knocked out to nearly a quarter of the city, the culprit? A squirrel had managed to get itself fried climbing on one of the large transformers and the su

          • by sjames ( 1099 )

            POTS lines will still accept pulse dialing pretty much everywhere even though it is rarely used.

            • POTS lines will still accept pulse dialing pretty much everywhere even though it is rarely used.

              A number of telcos have dropped it, though googling around, it's less than I thought.

            • by mysidia ( 191772 )

              IIRC; ATT still charges us extra for "Touch tone dialing", because it's a "Value-added feature", or some crap such as that.

        • but my handiman almost got arrested when the police showed up and found a guy on a ladder drilling a hole through a wall.

          That's awesome. =)

      • by mrchaotica ( 681592 ) * on Saturday May 02, 2015 @12:36PM (#49600677)

        That sort of thing happens with old people. When my grandmother died (in the '90s), we found out that she had still been renting her phone!

      • by Technician ( 215283 ) on Saturday May 02, 2015 @05:30PM (#49602273)

        Wow, Where are the old timers?

        One of the older viruses/malware would redirect dial up just to collect termination fees. This script mailware was most often associated with porn sites., but not always. The frequency of this exploit tended to die down with growing broadband use over dialup. I first saw issues of this with dial up modems. My early cure for this as a prevention was tu use an Actiontech Dual PC modem connected to a router in the same configuration as a broadband modem and router setup.

        This provided high immunity to the exploit as the modem contained the ISP dial up number and a compromised attack website could not log into the modem to change the numberr. As a network modem it did not respond to the Hayes AT command set.

        A common practice for ohters was to change the escape charactor, but this only provided limited protection as a changed configuration file for common dialer programs could still be altered. Hidden and Read only attributes in DOS addad another defence with limited success.

        Old school dial up was compromised by a very old attack against dial up modem use.

      • by frisket ( 149522 )
        Yeah, well we all know what kind of web pages you get the viruses that do the disconnect-and-redial trick on...
      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        There certainly was an AT&T error there. When he called about the 1st month, the rep couldn't figure out what was going on even though he should have easily seen it was all to one number and that the number was AOL. Further, he promised to send a tech out to investigate and failed to do so. That failure accounts for half of the bill.

        Meanwhile, warning your customer if they're running up an unusually large and potentially unpayable bill is just part of good business.

        And yeah, in this day and age, $0.36/m

      • I guess we've found the one guy who didn't embrace broadband. Were I the guy I'd go after AOL for switching the dialup site.

        That said, how much time did he spend online to rack up that much of a charge. From what I can find during peak hours it's 42 cents a minute, off peak 36.5 cents a minute which I still find extortion.

        If we average the two we get 39.25 cents a minute we get 61906 minutes - 1031 hours - or 42 days of constant online activity.
    • My Comcast bill is autopaid... using my bank's system, where the payment is "pushed" (not "pulled") only if it conforms to the rules that I set (namely, that it is not more expensive than usual). In fact, I got an email a few days ago saying that my most recent payment was not sent because Comcast tried to increase the rate by almost double. It's time to negotiate again... Google Fiber can't come soon enough!

      • Many moons ago had an autopay mess up 240 turned into 24000, sue they would refund me the overdraft not the 17 others who all came out on the first. Had to take them to small claims.

        Now I only use my banks system far better and if they screw up it's their issue to fix.

      • ISPs in the USA (Score:5, Insightful)

        by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Saturday May 02, 2015 @04:01PM (#49601841) Homepage Journal

        Google Fiber can't come soon enough!

        It is astounding how bad our ISPs are that we are literally lining up and begging for data-warehouser Google to come along and insert themselves between us and the internet.

        And I totally agree with you. I needs it, my precious.

    • In Germany, autopay comes with an authorization limit... basically, "if the bill is over X,€ don't autopay"

      I'd prefer to see this on the autopay here in the states as well... because I'm fine with authorizing autopay for any bill less than $60... but if it reaches into the thousands, or even the hundreds, then I damn well don't want to authorize the autopay!

      • It would never happen here because the conservatives are always against regulations that make it harder to fuck people over.
    • then you can dispute the charges. Assuming you're in the States that is. I've heard it's a little harder in Europe (America has a few more laws about loads that kick in with CCs), but by no means impossible.
  • WTF? (Score:5, Funny)

    by the_skywise ( 189793 ) on Saturday May 02, 2015 @11:26AM (#49600331)

    "AT&T spokeshole"

    Is this part of the new genderless naming styles from the AP?

    • i like it though (in this case at least). 'Spokeshole' is probably more descriptive of these types of people than the normal pronouns.

    • Congresscritter?

      I for one welcome our new -hole gender-neutral name style for jobs that are essentially "lie about this in the least possible lie, so that it still puts us in a good light"

  • "long distance"

    What is this, 1997?

    • And $50 a month for dialup service? I didn't know that even existed anymore, like phone booths and 3-foot antennas on cars.
      • Many people in the USA live in remote areas with no good cell coverage and no cable or fiber optic. And that $50/month undoubtedly includes unrestricted local calls, which is why his previous always-on AOL usage was not increasing his bill.

        There used to be good commercial reasons for AT&T to monitor for this sort of thing. It was tying up long distance trunk lines nearly 24x7 for a month, and those used to be radically more expensive and less available than local connections. It required an actual physi

        • by Barny ( 103770 )

          My bank can and do notify me when there is 'odd spending' happening on my credit card. Usually it is just some odd store I have purchased from online.

          Having their billing system trigger a flag when it hits 10x the usual cost and halt access and red flag for support to call them when it hits 100x is NOT hard or invasive. This wouldn't even need metadata, it could simply wait for the daily billing totals to tally up and run off that.

          • Re:"long distance" (Score:5, Insightful)

            by mrchaotica ( 681592 ) * on Saturday May 02, 2015 @12:39PM (#49600703)

            My bank can and do notify me when there is 'odd spending' happening on my credit card.

            The key phrase there is "credit card." Your bank does that precisely because it is the one liable for fraudulent charges. If you were the one liable -- is is the case with debit cards, or phone bills (as per this article) -- then they wouldn't give a shit.

            • My bank does it with debit cards also. It's a smaller community bank and I have found it annoying a couple of times when I had to answer an alert or had a large purchase declined but they allowed me to adjust my limits and everything to mostly avoid tripping it. Perhaps some banks are still into customer service. This one used to have awesome hours (7:00 am to 7:00 pm) but cut back with the financial crisis to more normal bankers hours (8:00 am to 5:00 pm) but they said they are trying to staff to return to

          • Having their billing system trigger a flag when it hits 10x the usual cost and halt access and red flag for support to call them when it hits 100x is NOT hard or invasive.

            "Halting access" would mean cutting off their landline service. That is _not_ something to do lightly to someone in the midst of their personal or business crisis.

        • by Fwipp ( 1473271 )

          Also, monitoring for this kind of accident is paying a lot more attention to individual customer bills and usage than I necessarily want AT&T monitoring. AT&T has already established that they cooperate extensively with monitoring US communications at NSA request, especially with the notorious "Room 641A". DO we want them collecting and acting on this kind of data?

          Do I want AT&T keeping a record of the bills they've sent me? I sure damn hope they are.

          "Hmm this bill is 24000% as much as their previous maximum bill, yeah there's no way this could have been auto-detected!" Your dad could code that after a week's intro to programming.

        • by sjames ( 1099 )

          Pretty much any responsible business that bills periodically will warn a customer when they are significantly deviating from the normal charges. They already keep that information so they can itemize your bill.

        • Also, monitoring for this kind of accident is paying a lot more attention to individual customer bills and usage than I necessarily want AT&T monitoring. AT&T has already established that they cooperate extensively with monitoring US communications at NSA request, especially with the notorious "Room 641A". DO we want them collecting and acting on this kind of data?

          They won't be collecting more data than before. They're collecting billing data as usual - and there's nothing wrong with that. They have to collect that data to send out the correct bills to their customers. The only difference is that they should keep an eye on what they're billing, and unusual costs racked up by customers.

          This issue should have set off various flags. First of all I can't imagine there are many residential users that use this much long distance calls (or calls to the kind of premium numbe

      • For $51/month that landline better have unlimited long-distance. How can my cell phone have unlimited long distance (even when calling landline phones!) plus data plus texts for $40 and this poor SOB was getting drilled for $51 for inferior service?

        I think it might be time to take out the big anti-trust club and beat all of the major telecoms and broadband providers about the head and neck until they are broken into little pieces and have shown they know how to behave. It appears to be the only thing they

        • by dryeo ( 100693 )

          My land line (Canada) is tariffed at $25 but they've added enough charges to bring it up to $40+ a month and long distance is 30 cents a minute with a $6 charge for not using it. Dial-up is another $40 a month for unlimited.
          They know that people using it have no other choice (or are old and uninterested in other choices) so charge what they can.

        • How can my cell phone have unlimited long distance (even when calling landline phones!) plus data plus texts for $40 and this poor SOB was getting drilled for $51 for inferior service?

          We canned our AT&T line because it cost $51 without unlimited long distance, which would have been another ten bucks. Now we have VOIP for $8/mo plus a trivial amount per-minute.

      • by dryeo ( 100693 )

        Dial-up is expensive. I pay $80 a month for phone line and dial-up here in Canada. As I'm 40 miles from Vancouver and there are mountains so no satellite, no cell service either so the phone company is free to rape us due to lack of choice. Even charge $5.95 a month for not using long distance (30 cents a minute).
        The dial-up itself has gone up to 39.95 a month for unlimited and I need a good modem to get 26.4 connection.

  • by YesIAmAScript ( 886271 ) on Saturday May 02, 2015 @11:30AM (#49600351)

    This isn't an errant bill or anything. The person called long distance that much in two months.

    And AT&T waived it after it was pointed out. So why freak out about this?

    Finally, I'm really ashamed of slashdot approving an article which refers to an AT&T spokesperson as a "spokeshole" for no reason. Georgia Taylor didn't do anything to deserve that.

    Show some maturity, slashdot.

    • by Livius ( 318358 ) on Saturday May 02, 2015 @11:49AM (#49600461)

      And AT&T waived it after it was pointed out.

      Wrong. They only waived it after a journalist began to investigate.

    • This isn't an errant bill or anything. The person called long distance that much in two months.

      And AT&T waived it after it was pointed out. So why freak out about this?

      Finally, I'm really ashamed of slashdot approving an article which refers to an AT&T spokesperson as a "spokeshole" for no reason. Georgia Taylor didn't do anything to deserve that.

      Show some maturity, slashdot.

      Well, let's see here.

      Firstly, there's no immediate feedback on phone charges. A running faucet or light left on will get noticed and turned off - people *want* to be sensible about their expenses.

      Imagine a running faucet going unnoticed for 4 weeks. Phone services are like that.

      Secondly, when the user does nothing different and suddenly gets these charges, can you really blame the user?

      Imagine you work adjacent to the waterfront district, the Queen Mary happens to be docked there, and your phone calls are p

    • This isn't an errant bill or anything. The person called long distance that much in two months.

      Wow does that bring back memories. For those who weren't around in the dialup days, certain malware would change the default dialup number for your modem to a 900 number (where you're charged per minute, like phone sex services use), which would then redial to AOL or whatever number you were trying to connect to. So you wouldn't notice anything was amiss because you'd still connect to AOL like usual, but you'd

      • The power company does this because increased usages on large scale screws up their base calculations as well as makes them purchase more surge energy at higher costs. This goes to how the utility purchases power for use on the grid. They are also limited in how they charge often having to petition a state utilities board to raise rates to consumers. Telcos do not have this problem and if someone makes a call that crosses an expensive switchboard, they simply pass the costs on to the consumer as the long di

    • The problem is AT&T would rather bill the person then actually look into an anomaly. The average person spends what, max $100 / month on long distance? And $15K _didn't_ set off any alarms that _maybe_ something was wrong?!?! Nope, they just billed the person with the attitude "Not our problem"

      It's called "Having respect for your customers",

      not

      "Let's fuck them over any chance we get -- not our problem until it is our problem"

    • Well, for one AT&T did not waive the fee when it was pointed out. They waited a few months until a news reporter got on the case. Now imagine it was something smaller, like merely getting billed double. Not a big enough issue for a reporter to blow the whistle on, and AT&T won't fix things because they're clueless.

  • by tadas ( 34825 ) on Saturday May 02, 2015 @11:45AM (#49600443)

    People still dial in to AOL with a modem in 2015? *That* is the real "News for Nerds"

    • Both of my parents are retired and on a fixed income. Both of them use dial-up (they don't live together). I have tried to encourage them to get the benefits of broadband, but they are just too stubborn and continue to say "I just don't need it". So, here is the real news flash: Old people don't like to change.
      • Sometimes the change is difficult though. Ie, the only reason my mother finally switched was because AT&T told her that she could keep her email address. Which was utterly false of course. But keeping her email address was the primary reason she didn't want to switch. For awhile she was taking wifi from a neighbor, with permission, and so it wasn't as big a deal.

        Then when you do go and get involved with the ISP, they screw around with you. Up selling you on products you don't need, misrepresenting

  • ... couldn't make heads or tails of the bill.

    Sounds like BS to me. A service rep can't spot itemized long distance charges? More like, "We're gonna start making bundles off this dotty old geezer. Keep him going as long as possible."

  • Nothing To See Here (Score:4, Informative)

    by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Saturday May 02, 2015 @11:52AM (#49600473) Homepage Journal
    There's really nothing to see here. Except that long distance with per-minute charges are still a thing. And AOL is still a thing, I guess? I definitely would not have called that. And old people are easily tricked into buying both those things. I don't think addressing the ease with which old people are tricked is on the agenda. Whether it's aluminum siding or their uncle in Uganda, tricking old people is just way too easy. And phone companies will just let you run up tens of thousands of dollars in arbitrary charges in one month, and let you keep doing it for several months when you don't pay the first one, that's definitely been a thing for a while. I'm actually a bit surprised AT&T waived it. In the stories I've heard in the past, the telcos usually put up a pretty good fight about that sort of thing.
    • by tepples ( 727027 )

      And AOL is still a thing, I guess?

      AOL is the parent company of The Huffington Post. I imagine (or at least I hope) that pulls in more money than the dial-up side of its business.

  • I had an elderly customer stop into my computer repair shop. He had a laptop with XP. It caught cryptowall 3.0 and all his files are now permanently irrecoverable. I told him XP was unsafe to use on the internet and he insisted that it "works just fine," you know, because he know more than me about computer security...while his laptop is sitting here with a virus on it. He said a ton of people have told him to stop using it and he ignored them all. He drove here in a REALLY expensive car by the way so
    • by tepples ( 727027 )

      Now how many people do you think told the guy in the story to switch off of dialup.

      One possible excuse is "I would, but I can't afford real estate in the service area of cable or fiber." How would you respond to that?

      • One possible excuse is "I would, but I can't afford real estate in the service area of cable or fiber." How would you respond to that?

        I'd tell them to look into the possibility of wireless internet in their area. It usually still sucks compared even to DSL, but it's orders of magnitude better than dial-up — measurably so.

    • by mysidia ( 191772 )

      It caught cryptowall 3.0 and all his files are now permanently irrecoverable.

      In general that's not true; just help walk the customer through paying the ransom and retrieving their files... it's probably all they want, anyways.

  • AT&T declined to answer the LA Times questions about why AT&T didn't spot the problem itself and proactively take steps to fix things?

    Yeah, that's not how it works. My sleazebag WISP (Digital Path) claims they have extensive uptime monitoring, so they should know when you have internet access and they could bill you accordingly, right? But they base their uptime on the link state, so if the link to your mountain is down (they bring in access from something like four mountaintops away, hop hop hop hop) but your link to your mountain is up (the PoPs are on mountaintops, obviously) then their logging says your connection is good when in fact

  • Kudos to then for waiving this.

    Although the call(s) really cost them virtually nothing, they had the legal right to demand payment.

    Wisely, they ate it.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      yeah,
      AFTER sending the customer an $8,000 bill.
      AFTER ignoring customer requests to look into the matter.
      AFTER not carrying out the promised investigative measures.
      AFTER sending the same customer yet another bill, this time for $15,000 +
      AFTER threatening the customer with leagl action, costs, etc.
      AFTER the customer got so fucked off, they had to phone a journalist to interevene.
      AFTER said journalists pointed out to those shameless fucks, the customer was 83 years old, and ATT had done NOTHING but exacerbate

  • by GroeFaZ ( 850443 ) on Saturday May 02, 2015 @12:29PM (#49600653)
    docsigma2000: jesus christ man
    docsigma2000: my son is sooooooo dead
    c8info: Why?
    docsigma2000: hes been looking at internet web sites in fucking EUROPE
    docsigma2000: HE IS SURFING LONG DISTANCE
    docsigma2000: our fucking phone bill is gonna be nuts
    c8info: Ooh, this is bad. Surfing long distance adds an extra $69.99 to your bill per hour.
    docsigma2000: ...!!!!!! FUCK FUCK FUCK
    docsigma2000: is there some plan we can sign up for???
    docsigma2000: cuz theres some cool stuff in europe, but i dun wanna pauy that much
    c8info: Sorry, no. There is no plan. you'll have to live with it.
    docsigma2000: o well, i ccan live without europe intenet sites.
    docsigma2000: but till i figure out how to block it hes sooooo dead
    c8info: By the way, I'm from Europe, your chatting long distance.
    ** docsigma2000 has quit (Connection reset by peer)
  • It's funny, but it's been this way for ages - the phone company will essentially give you unlimited credit. Mr Dorff is living on about $1500 a month. How many credit cards with $25K limits do you think he has? I don't understand why phone companies don't just set a max for your bill and then shut you off if it goes over that, at least for billable items like long distance.

    • I don't understand why phone companies don't just set a max for your bill and then shut you off if it goes over that,

      Tee hee.

      Your naivete is charming, but if you have testicles, count them after every future transaction

    • by jopsen ( 885607 )

      I don't understand why phone companies don't just set a max for your bill and then shut you off if it goes over that, at least for billable items like long distance.

      Because it doesn't cost them anything to sell you 23k in long distance service... So even if you'll never be able to pay it off, that's not a problem for them.
      In fact many credit card companies (pay day loans) etc. prey on people in ability to pay off loans, that then proceed to incur interest and late fees.

      The only way to fix things like this through regulation... i.e. force phone providers to set a default max limit of say $500, and require that customers are offered a way to change the max limit.
      Thes

    • by mysidia ( 191772 )

      don't just set a max for your bill and then shut you off if it goes over that, at least for billable items like long distanc

      They can contact you, but POTS service and LD service are regulated by the FCC, and they can't turn off your service, until certain legally mandated requirements are met. It seems that turning off your LD service before a big bill can be incurred is not an option the telco is allowed to take, even if they wanted to.

  • Like this.

    AT&T also declined to elaborate on whether AT&T's billing system is capable of spotting unusual charges and, if so, why it doesn't routinely do so.

    I had my own issues with our local phone company. Several years (yes years) after I bought and moved into my house I got a visit from the Police. Hearing a knock at the door at 10pm on a Saturday night scared the hell out of me... I have a gated yard, so it meant someone jumped the 4ft wall just to come up and knock. The said they'd gotten a 911 hangup. I've never had my land line hooked up in this house, and no phones plugged into any lines anywhere. They shrugged it off. A couple weeks later, more police visiting mid day, same reason. I called the phone company and they had no record of service at this address, the police (supposedly) also called, and everyone figured it was fixed.

    Nope... 3rd visit from cops, even they were getting annoyed at this point. This time I spent nearly 2 hours on the phone with phone company. They finally kicked me over to another department (tech guys I think) who found that a previous tenant, years earlier, had the emergency only (life-line) service. It had been "disconnected" in the system in every way as far as billing and such were concerned, but wasn't actually physically disconnected. The tech guys were finally able to fix it.

    This is a case where you'd think their system would be able to detect that calls were being placed by a residence that had no service. Nope.

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      They finally kicked me over to another department (tech guys I think) who found that a previous tenant, years earlier, had the emergency only (life-line) service. It had been "disconnected" in the system in every way as far as billing and such were concerned, but wasn't actually physically disconnected. The tech guys were finally able to fix it. (...) This is a case where you'd think their system would be able to detect that calls were being placed by a residence that had no service. Nope.

      I don't know how it is in the US, but here in Norway you can dial our equivalent of 911 from any cell phone, connecting to any tower in range regardless if it has service or even a SIM card and I assume landlines work on the same principle. That the service was "disconnected" just means they don't have any obligation to keep it working, but they're not going to block any 911 call ever, I don't know if there's a law but the bad publicity would be a disaster. So this is probably by design and a feature, not a

  • Is that there is still dial-up AOL.
    • by Trepidity ( 597 )

      They still have millions of subscribers, too. Much of the U.S. doesn't have broadband coverage, or only expensive/shitty broadband coverage.

  • Something like this happened to me with MCI when I was in college. Not originally from a state with "local toll" charges, I even asked the MCI rep ahead of time to confirm a no-toll number from my ISP's list. A month later, I had about $850 in toll charges and absolutely no way to fight it. Not quite $24k but it was a big dent in my budget. Let's just say I wasn't sad when I Worldcom got into so much trouble a year or two later.
  • 20 years ago there were new billing policies being put into place in different regions. I was in a California hotel over one weekend for a business meeting, and used the corporate network's local access number to connect and work all day, since my employer had bought a cheaper airline ticket that meant I had to stay over an extra day. I was shocked on checking out to be billed at $0.50 an hour for that time. Being from Florida I had no idea that local calls were charged at that rate from a commercial venue,

    • by matria ( 157464 )

      Oh, I should probably also mention that a year later that company was bought out by AOL.

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