how am i going to tell my kids there’s no christmas this year?

gather ’round the fire, kiddies, it’s story time.  i’ve been hanging on to this one for a good long while, but it’s time for this rant to come out and rear it’s ugly head.  mostly, it’s a tale in which we laugh at people who have not been born with an overabundance of intelligence, but there’s a morality tale in here as well.

and this story is called, as you could probably tell…

how am i going to tell my kids there’s no christmas this year?

(cue dramatic music)

so, i used to do tech support.  for a long, long while i was a tech support monkey, and i got my monkey start working for a callcenter who was doing support for MSN.  MSN is, or at least was many years ago, microsoft’s answer to AOL.  they’re both the devil, really.  they’re both glorified browsers with a bunch of crap added on that are supposed to make browsing easier but really just crowd your screen.  i will say that after msn8 was released, i did use it — at work — but it was slow and bogged down my computer at home.  and i couldn’t imagine wanting to use it over a dialup connection, which is what most of the folks calling in were on at that time.

tech support is usually divided up into three tiers, and these tiers’ functions vary depending on the company and infrastructure.  tier 1 is invariably the front line.  they are the first people you talk to when you have a problem.  doesn’t matter what problem it is, you’re talking to some tier one schmuck.  and most of them are schmucks.  even though officially you weren’t supposed to move up to a higher tier until you’d been on tier 1 for at least 3 months, i got a tier 3 position in a little over a month.  only the schmucks or the n00bs are ever left on tier 1.  tier 1 is trained to try to get first call resolution.  and probably 8 times out of 10 they can, because most problems are dumb.  it’s the other 2 that leave you, the customer, screaming at your tier 1 schmuck and begging him for something, anything, else, because you’ve already flushed your cookies and cache, you’ve rebooted the computer and the modem, and you’ve repoptimized your msn client — whatever the hell that does — and you still can’t connect to the internet.

at the call center i worked at, msn tier 3 handled all escallations, which means billing, customer service, and technical support escalations.  billing was, understandably, always the worst.  usually folks were okay if you refunded a couple months back to them.  but we had a policy not to do more than 3 months.  technically we had the ability to do more (with manager approval — hint: they wouldn’t), but it was discouraged.  (I think later they disabled the actual ability to do more than 3 months, but those of us who had that ability before, kept it later.)

My most difficult call is also, in retrospect, my most amusing story, and is a lesson about keeping your finances in check.  Being on tier 3, we got a lot of calls from customers who had gotten a new computer at best buy.  best buy was running a promo at the time that signed you up for 3 months of free msn internet service when you bought your computer on your credit card (or visa/mastercard debit card).  i agree, the deal was pretty slimy.  from what i understood, it sounded pretty difficult to not get the msn service, and anyway, who can argue with free internet?  this didn’t stop us from being really snotty towards the people who didn’t realize they were being billed months after the billing cycle started.  we got these calls every day.  does anyone actually look at their credit card or bank statements?  i started to doubt they did.

so one day in december i got a call from an angry african american lady in chicago.  i remember chicago, because the people who called me from chicago when i worked at msn were always angry.  (it’s one of those social stereotypes that somehow just always applies, like everyone from the east coast is brash and a little (or, often, a lot) offensive, and everyone from the south, particularly african americans in the south, are pretty cool.)  i once got a call from a lady whose phone number was on a list of dialup access numbers, so she was constantly barraged by phone calls from modems — she was angry, also, she was in (or around) chicago.  why she didn’t just change her number, i didn’t understand. (“why should i have to change my number. you’re the ones with the problem.”)  back to this angry african american lady in chicago.  she had a pretty good sob story: the family was low on cash, they had a couple kids and they couldn’t afford christmas presents this year.  “i really hate to have to put all this on you,” she said, “i’m not trying to ask for a handout.*”

“okay, how can i help you?”

“well i bought this computer last year, and i just noticed you guys have been charging me every month for msn that i’m not using.”

the story was obvious: she bought a computer at best buy, paid on credit card, and was automatically signed up for 3 months of free msn.  after the trial period, the billing cycle had started.  the amazing thing was that she has been billed for a year — and it really had been almost a full year, like 10 or 11 months — without noticing.  i explained the likely scenario and she seemed to agree that that was likely the case.

“well, i can’t give you a full refund, but based on your situation, i can cancel your account and refund the last three months,” i said.  that wasn’t good enough.  the phone call escalated more and more, and each time i explained that i could not refund more than 3 months.  she wanted the full year.  she made accusations and threats and — at the peak of hysteria — screamed into the phone, half-sobbing, half full of pure rage: “how am i going to tell my kids there’s no christmas!”

newsflash: why don’t you start by explaining to your kids that you are so unable to manage your own money that you not only signed up for an internet service without realizing it, but additionally, didn’t realize that you had been billed every month for said internet.. service.

* dialog is approximated and probably not the actual things that were spoken.  the christmas line, however, is too good to be something i made up.  that actually happened.

sometime after this she asked to speak with my supervisor and i was more than happy to let her.  of course, he didn’t want to talk to her at all, and ended up getting in a shouting match with her.  i, at least, had kept my cool.  (at least, i think i did.  for the purposes of this story, we’ll just assume i did.)

sidenote: i recently got slammed with a $400 charge for 2 $200 itunes gift cards i did not purchase.  someone had gotten into my itunes account,  and used it — which had already been pre-loaded with my paypal account — to purchase 2 $200 gift cards for two anonymous and random users at 5:20am when myself, my kids, our cats, and erin were all sleeping.  i filed a dispute with paypal and they refused to refund the charges, stating that they’d tracked the transaction to my ip address, and they don’t issue refunds for “buyer remorse.”  i filed a similar dispute to reverse charges with wells fargo (because the first $200 had pulled from my paypal balance, but the second $200 had overflowed into our bank account), and they reversed the charges without a second glance.  important note: paypal is a business — it is not a banking institution.  it should never be assumed that paypal is a bank.  this assumption makes it easy to assume they will be on your side in a dispute.  they aren’t.  they want their money and they only get their money when money changes hands.  they are on the side of the seller.  i talked to a lawyer friend/client who was similarly outraged, and suggested filing a police report, and taking paypal to small claims court, but i really didn’t really want to go through the trouble.  i filed it as a loss, changed my itunes email address, changed the password associated with all accounts that used that email address, removed all but one email address from paypal and changed that password, and now, use paypal for as little as possible (except, when necessary, billing clients, but mostly we use google checkout now).

here’s the hidden moral: there’s lots of ways for businesses that are both benevolent and morally gray to get at your money.  don’t make it easy.  if you ever are required to give out your credit card number and it isn’t clear why or what it might be used for, and you aren’t directly making a purchase (like subscription services such as itunes, xbox live, wii store, etc), for gods’ sake, be conscious of what you are doing, and know that now that they have your credit card number, it will be used whenever money needs to change hands for a purchase, whether you are aware of it or not.  when i filed my complaint with itunes, they brushed me off: i had submitted my paypal information, therefore, as far as they were concerned, i authorized the use of my paypal account.  they encouraged me to settle the dispute with paypal.  thank you, drive through.  (that is, what we in the tech support biz called a flog — a generic response that the recipient can’t act on immediately, that gets them off the phone.  another flog could be reboot your computer and try again, or buy an antivirus software, run a scan, and call back if you still have problems.)  honestly, i have no idea what inspired me to link my paypal account with my itunes account. probably it was just the fact that i could.  i never used it, and i’ve never payed for mp3s (p.s. i used that in my defense — paypal wasn’t impressed).

and here’s a bonus hint: don’t blame other people for your own failings.  the people i dealt with at msn that i issued refunds to (particularly those i issued the maximum refunds to) all had one thing in common: they were all hopelessly unaware of their own finances.  they allowed themselves to be charged several months’ worth of internet service before noticing.  it’s not the fault of the internet service provider that you can’t have christmas, it’s your own fault for not looking at your credit card statement and maxing out your cards.  if there’s no christmas, it’s no one’s fault but your own.






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