Friday, August 1, 2014

Snookered


I got swindled. I also learned a lot about how the “security guarantees” offered by Visa aren’t all they seem. Share this story so that this won’t happen to you or someone you know.

Pay No Attention To the Man Behind the Curtain

When I went to look for an Internet Service Provider to recommend to one of my freelance clients, I started with Google and then wound my way through endless lists of cheap ISPs all offering pretty much the same services for the same price. I picked three that looked like the biggest and started searching around for posted reviews/problems/complaints.

I found a few positive reviews and no significant problems or complaints for for Total Internet Solutions of Hollywood, CA. They had a decent rating on the Better Business Bureau site at the time. The price was right (about $5/month) and they had all of the standard tools and services I needed for a straightforward, HTML “brochure” site.

It was about $170 for the domain registration and one year of hosting. Reasonable. Contracting with ISPs, however, are sometimes like visiting the Wizard in the Emerald City. You don’t really know what’s behind the curtain until it’s too late.

Surprises

My first mistake: I let Total Internet Solutions register my client’s domain. I should have known better, but I was in a hurry and I had never had a problem with ISPs in the past. I asked the man on the phone to put make sure the Administrative Contact for the domain was listed as me (this client was a small nonprofit just getting started and I planned to hand it over to them when they got organized). The man agreed. When I went to check the domain registry (whois.org) a few days later, I saw that the domain was utterly and completely registered to Total Internet Solutions. When I called to complain, a different man said he would be happy to sell it to me for $5,000. I asked him what I had paid for in the initial cost and he said that was for “renting” the domain. I talked to my client. They were committed to the domain name and decided to go forward with “renting” the domain for the time being.

After all, the ISP was pretty inexpensive.

My second mistake: I used my personal Visa card to get the account. This was, again, due to the fact I was in a hurry and my client didn’t have a corporate credit card. One of the people in the nonprofit is my mom, so I had absolutely no worry about getting stuck with the bill. I thought I was being clever. Visa’s marketing makes a big fuss about how it protects consumers from illegal use of their cards. Not so much. First of all, Visa dumps responsibility of this on the bank that manages it (in my case, Chase Bank). Chase Bank was great about identifying and removing the illegal use of my credit card when someone tried to buy plane tickets from Hong Kong to Australia a couple of years ago (so not me), but they really turned into wet paper towels when it came to helping me on this.

More about my interaction with Chase Bank later.

My third mistake: I didn’t push to dump them at the first unhappy surprise. We went merrily along for the first two years without any real problems. Then I notice a $400 charge from Total Internet Solutions on my credit card statement six months later. I called and found out that this was the cost for the next two years (to be added to the remainder of the one year I already paid for). I complained and said that I should have been asked before the card was charged. I was told that the automatic billing was in their agreement and that they were under no obligation to tell me anything. The man also said that he had sent an email the month before, which I never found, even after scouring my Spam folder.

I talked to my client and they decided that the cost wasn’t unmanageable over two years (about $16/month), and that they didn’t want to lose their domain. I wasn’t happy about any of this — particularly the domain thing — but the actual website hosting was fine. It was only down once and, that one time, the tech support was timely and effective.

We moved forward.

Two years later, I got an email from Total Internet Solutions saying that my credit card was about to be billed $1,480.00 for two more years. Not surprisingly, I called to complain and was given the same runaround about them being under no obligation to ask me before they billed my card. When I asked why the cost was so different, I was told I had been bumped up to some kind of professional level of service.

Which, of course, I had never asked for.


I talked to my client and we decided to just bite the bullet and let go of the domain we had been working under for four years. I called back and tried to cancel the account. The man at Total Internet Solutions said he would be happy to do that, but that he would not return any of my money. I spent a long time arguing with him about this. Among other things, I learned that the man I had been talking to for “billing questions” was not actually running the servers. Total Internet Solutions is just a reseller of someone else’s server space and bandwidth. This explained a lot — namely why the hosting and tech support was decent while the business dealings were so awful.

My next step was to call my bank and try to stop the payment to Total Internet Solutions before it went through.

What I Learned About Chase Visa Was Even More Disappointing

I had been doing all of this frantically over a day or two. I called Chase’s Fraud group and said that I was about to be billed for something I didn’t order. I was told by the woman on the other end to wait until the charge went through. Then I should dispute it.

So I waited three days, checking the Chase website several times a day, until the charge went through. Then I did what I was told and disputed it.

The charge was removed from my account. Since I wasn’t incurring interest on the charge, I just waited for a response.

My fourth mistake: I signed for a FedEx envelope. During that time, a weird thing happened. I got a FedEx envelope from Total Internet Solutions with a piece of nonsensical scrap paper in it. I shot off an angry email to the email address Total Internet Solutions had given me asking why and was unsurprised when I got no response.

A month later, I was contacted by a nice man named Greg from Chase Bank. Greg said that he had called the vendor to explain that I was unhappy, and then asked for the money back. The vendor refused.

The “dispute resolution” apparently consisted of someone at the bank calling Total Internet Solutions and asking if he would, pretty please, return the money.

*heavy sigh* That was not what I had hoped for.

I told Greg I had talked to the Total Internet Solutions guy at length and was I pretty sure he wasn’t going to give the money back. Greg asked me for my side of the story. He said he would pass this on to Total Internet Solutions and get back to me. Apparently, the vendor in this situation gets 30 days to respond to each request. In the meantime, Greg sent me copies of the faxes that Total Internet Solutions had sent him.

Among the documents Total Internet Solutions had sent Chase Bank was a note saying that Total Internet Solutions does not do recurring transactions. This confused me because I had an invoice from the $400 go-around with Total Internet Solutions that said it was, indeed, a recurring charge.

When I read closer, I saw that they are talking about specific types of recurring transactions. The Total Internet Solutions guy says that it’s not a recurring transaction because he didn't encoded it as such when he billed Visa. Apparently it was irrelevant to Chase Bank that I didn’t get to approve the charge first.

His other assertion was that this $1,480 charge was for software that he had sold me and he included, as proof, a signed FedEd receipt. I finally understood why Total Internet Solutions FedEx'd me that piece of paper.

The dude set me up.

The software was supposedly something called SiteReptile. I didn’t order it, I didn’t receive it, and I have never used it. There, however, in the stack of paperwork from Chase Bank was a receipt with my name and address, my credit card number, a checkbox that says I agreed that there are no refunds and a giant link that says “I agree to terms of service” that was cut-and-pasted by Total Internet Solutions.

He faked it.

The Total Internet Solutions guy faked a piece of documentation to prove me wrong. When I told Greg about the piece of paper in the FedEx envelope, he said that I shouldn’t have signed for the envelope or I should have sent it back. I asked him “What if I had sent it back and the Total Internet Solutions guy told you I just returned an empty envelope?” Greg said that might happen and I would still be liable.

“So, basically, if the vendor isn’t truthful, the customer always pays,” I said to Greg.

“In this type of situation,” said Greg, “yes.”

Despite that little interchange, I kept trying. I sent more documentation in “proving” my side of the story and Greg passed that on to Total Internet Solutions.

My fifth mistake: I used the Total Internet Solutions tech support/bug track system for all of my communications/complaints. When I called the final time to ask for the account to be shut down (and for my money to be returned), Total Internet Solutions shut down everything — the site and my access to the email conversations that were housed in their support system. The website was turned back on (likely so Total Internet Solutions could show Chase Bank that my site was up and they were fulfilling the terms of the agreement). I hadn’t remembered to make backups/screenshots of these emails before I made it clear to Total Internet Solutions that I was going to raise a stink. The Total Internet Solutions guy was also careful to have “billing questions” resolved via a phone call instead of email. That left me precious little documented proof of our conversations that I could pass on to Chase Bank — or a lawyer.

A month later, Greg sent me the same stack of faxes as well as a note saying that Chase has determined that my dispute is resolved and the charge has been re-applied to my credit card. The biggest nail in my coffin was the faked invoice and FedEx receipt for "the software." When I talked to him, Greg said that I could continue to dispute it but I’d have to keep going back to the same department within Chase (the Customer Service department, not the Fraud department). Greg also reminded me that his department was not a legal entity. They couldn’t make Total Internet Solutions do anything.

At one point in all this, I told Greg that I had called Chase Bank before the charge went through and asked to have it blocked. If that request had been fulfilled, the bank wouldn’t be in the middle of my "he said/she said" argument with Total Internet Solutions. They would have had to deal with me directly. Greg told me that the bank can’t do that. Any changes put in by a vendor are paid and can only be disputed after the fact. Which does, to my mind, give the advantage to the vendor. After all, he or she has the cash in hand. Greg had no comment on this.

I've since learned about other people who were also victims of this guy.

http://forums.cnet.com/7723-6616_102-536715/avoid-total-internet-solutions/
http://www.hostsearch.com/review/total_internet_solutions_review.asp

The age of the threads just goes to show how long this group has been scamming people. One guy even put up a dedicated website that follows this group as they reinvent themselves.

http://report-gisol.com

Lessons Learned

I got took. Don't let it happen to you. The next time around, this is what I'll do differently.
  1. Don't do any of this when I am "in a hurry."
  2. Get an actual human referral for a new ISP, even if it means paying more.
  3. Do any domain registration myself.
  4. When something goes wrong or strikes me as weird, get out of the business relationship as quickly as possible. That means setting up the relationship in a way that is easy to get out of.
  5. Go through any agreement with a fine-tooth comb and make a dated hardcopy of what I agree to.
  6. Use a pre-paid credit card for any new online service.
  7. Never sign for a package that I'm not expecting.
  8. Keep screenshots of any disagreements through an ISP's support system. Record disputes over the phone (if possible) or follow up each phone call with a detailed email about what was said. Keep these records someplace where I can find them easily.
In the immortal words of Sergeant Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) from the 1980's series Hill Street Blues: "Let's be careful out there."