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Nonstop service

We tend to think that we can do just about anything on the Web. But there's a curious thing that all providers of service avoid online: the ability to cancel a service. Yes, sites like Amazon allow you to stop an unshipped order, but if you try to cancel any type of subscription online, cancel an insurance policy or even suspend a home delivery from the supermarket, it can't happen.

All these suppliers force you to go through the deadly menu-based telephone system, invented to save real employees from answering your question or dealing with your problem. Lynne Truss, in her book “Talk to the Hand,” dryly puts it into real terms, “The only context in which you can expect to hear a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ nowadays is in recorded messages — and hey, guess what, they are not extending courtesy at all, because they are not attempting to meet you halfway. ‘Please have your account number ready as this will help us do our job more efficiently’…”

Once you finally get through to a human — who probably lives on a different continent — you already know that there will be no bending of the rules, no escape from the inevitable lack of assistance and no method left open to you to find anybody with the ability to get something done. The result is you let the subscription continue until it expires, you physically visit with your insurance agent and you just smile when the delivery truck drives up with your supermarket order.

That didn't happen back when my first ISP was CompuServe, and the company did okay with its numbered accounts — at least just for e-mail. But when I needed a more professional service, canceling CompuServe proved to be not just difficult, but impossible. After about three months of being jerked about, I cancelled the credit card that was paying the CompuServe account.

My most recent experience in trying to cancel something was in our own industry. Last October, I moved to Canada, a country that is very protective of its media. The use of U.S. satellite service is prohibited. There is a gray market, of course, but smart card changes make it difficult for it to sustain itself.

Not being in the business of bucking the system, I wanted to cancel my Dish Network account. Guess what? You cannot do it online. I entered the telephone menu hell but, of course, there were no prompts to tell me how to cancel the service. I finally reached a human on the other end of the line and went through the almost fanatical procedure to prove who I was.

Fortunately, I still remember my mother's maiden name, the last four digits of my Social Security number and my date of birth, so I was accepted as a legitimate customer.

Could I cancel service, please? I was grilled about why I was canceling, and moving to another country didn't seem to impress him. Finally the agent agreed to connect me to his technical department, which could actually cancel the subscription.

After I was connected, nobody answered for about three minutes, and I gave up. I suspect if I had instead wanted to upgrade service, the phone would have been answered on the first ring. Nevertheless, even with this runaround, I felt I had expressed my desire to cancel and that it would stick.

Oh, no, bills kept coming, and Dish ignored my address change. Finally, I e-mailed online service. The response, after two weeks, was:

“We received a call on October 23, 2005, that you are planning to disconnect the service. However, the account was never disconnected since you were not able to cancel the account at the correct department. You should have talk to our disconnection department so to process your request. Since the account was not cancelled, it remained active until December 25 and was only cancelled on January 10, 2006, due to non-payment. Since the account remained active for a period of time, the balance on the account is due, and we will not able to make any adjustment on your bill.”

Consider, “You should have talk to our disconnection department so to process your request.” Apart from the dreadful grammar, can you read the neener, neener, neener in there?

If we meet on the floor at NAB, I'm going to be asking for my $68.98 back, plus prepaid charges. Neener, neener, neener yourself.

Note: Completely out of the blue, and with no correspondence, I received a refund check from Dish Network — three weeks after this column was filed.

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.