- Before we talk about how AOL accounts opened without
your permission and being spied upon, we must first look at one example
of how your personal information can be obtained (i.e., "weasled"
out of you.) We often think web scams come from small-time back room operations.
But this is not always the case as an experience by a friend has recently
proven. It can all begin when someone thinks that earning money from
home is a great idea.
- ENDLESS ENVELOPES
- In the past, unwary people responded to various classified
ads for "stuffing envelopes at home." Many companies hired
people sight-unseen to do the work. They promised to pay them after
thousands of envelopes were returned to the company stuffed as instructed.
Often the "employee" was required to pay a fee up front - almost
for the "privilege" of working for the company. The fee
became money they would never see again. Neither would a paycheck arrive
in the mail. Most people caught by this scam never knew
that high-speed machines have been doing this job for several decades.
Therefore, they never asked why they would be hired in the first place
- all they saw was a source of easy income. One doesn't need an MBA
to realize that shipping charges alone incurred twice will far outstrip
any economic benefits.
- SURVEYS - THE DIGITAL EQUIVALENT OF ENVELOPE STUFFING
- Survey forms are the digital equivalent of stuffing
envelopes at home. There are countless survey websites, where the
website's "member" supposedly answers endless questions
forms and are compensate for doing so. One company known as "SurveyScout"
charges members up front a $34.95 fee for website access to fill out market
survey forms. The company claims they will "refund in full the fee
for anyone not satisfied." This has been found to be another lie by
a friend who put it to the test. Requests for a refund went unanswered.
Google the search term "survey scout scam." As of 12/27/2005
you will receive 4,130 search results.
- YOU MAY HAVE ONE OR MORE AOL ACCOUNTS WITHOUT YOUR
- The Survey Scout website also claims that members
are rewarded with free products, coupons, cash and other incentives for
filling out an endless parade of web forms. Often the member spends up
to an hour doing this exercise, only to find out the cash or incentive
is the proverbial "carrot on a stick." These incentives are like
the carrot held in front of a horse on an old cartoon to make him run faster.
Websites do this by creating these complicated reward requirements which
only appear after all the questions are answered for a survey. They create
ridiculous requirements which no one can ever fulfill. When our friend
attempted to reach Survey Scout and demand repayment, no phone number could
be found. Their business address on their website is listed on the
website as 6724 Perimeter Loop Rd., Dublin, Ohio. Neither Whitepages.com
or switchboard.com can find a listing for a phone at that address. Emails
to the company were also ignored.
- To sell prospective members on the survey scam, they
have a plethora of FAQs.
- Shown below are two of the most pertinent to this article:
- From Survey Scout FAQ #7 at http://surveyscout.com/faqsa.cgi?#17
- "I'm concerned about privacy issues. Should I worry
- ... we at SurveyScout do not, have not, and will not
ever give your personal information to anyone (unless you ask us to)."
- From Survey Scout FAQ# 8 at http://surveyscout.com/faqsa.cgi?#48:
- " If I change my mind, can I cancel my account
and get a refund?
- If after reviewing the SurveyScout private members-only
website and trying a few surveys you aren't thrilled with how easy we've
made it to make some extra cash, just let us know within eight weeks and
we'll give you a full money-back refund. You have nothing to lose."
- Both of these are lies. Personal information in their
posession caused an unauthorized AOL account to be opened. And the company cannot
be reached to obtain a refund.
- So how does all this fit in with opening an AOL account
without your knowledge or permission? It began when a friend paid $34.95
to join Survey Scout. The payment resulted in the company having debit
card information retained on their hard drive. This was sufficient
information for Scout's automated software to send a bogus data transfer
to AOL's computers, which in turn opened TWO accounts for the person without
their permission. Of course, Survey Scout receives a commission for every
AOL account they open. Once debit card information was passed on illegally to
AOL, automated billing commenced and a debit was submitted to the bank
for payment which was completed. In fact, our friend had their bank account debited
not once, but TWICE in less than two weeks. It was discovered that the
act of logging on to Survey Scout as a member to see what surveys
were available triggered the fraudulent AOL sign-up. Our friend was able
to discover this by looking at their bank account on-line. Otherwise it
would not have been discovered until the next bank statement came out.
- WHAT DOES AOL SAY?
- When AOL was contacted, they were convinced the sign-up
was legitimate and even a screen name was already assigned. Each time the
AOL sign-up fraud occurred, the Survey Scout member's bank account was
charged another $23.90. AOL's position is to contact their "fraud
department," which resulted in a one hour wait on the phone. No real
satisfaction was obtained. When our friend asked "did anyone
actually log on to the account and use it?" their answer was "We
don't have that information." This was another bald-faced lie, since
they had all the personal information including our friend's address.
- PROTECTING REMOTE ACCESS TO YOUR COMPUTER AND WHAT
YOU CAN DO RIGHT NOW
- Many think that laws like HIPPA and other privacy laws
protect people - but they do not. Often privacy laws actual end up
creating a lack of privacy. Spy-ware and other programs silently and invisibly
install on your computer, then load and run in the background. They programs
self-load whenever you start up your system. These programs scan
your computer for valuable marketing information. This can happen even
with a firewall in place on the highest levels of security. These programs
load through your web browser which already has firewall permission. Once
a firewall gives access to any program, it will not closely scrutinize
what that program does or files it transfers. Active X should be DISABLED
or set to PROMPT in your browser option or security settings. Any software
engineer will tell you Active X is like a "barn door" into your
computer. Very few webpages will not load correctly without Active X running.
Ads and banners are what usually require Active X to run. Also,
be sure file sharing is turned OFF in your control panel. This is another
barn door for remote access.
- Rense.com does not use Active X for their webpage, and
they are to be commended for this. Jeff's rense.com website proves that
Active X is not required to create a great website. Plug-in programs like
Adobe Reader, Windows Media and others may not launch unless Active X is
allowed to run. If one needs to run these periodically for videos
or to read documents, one can set Active X to "prompt" and allow
it to run only when needed. It might make your surfing a little inconvenient
when the "Run Active X Controls?" dialog appears, but this simple
action will keep most spy-ware from ever loading into your computer. Spy-ware
scanning and removal programs are available on the web, and there
are websites that rate various programs. If your computer has been
slowing down or freezing up, there is an excellent likelihood you have
- MORE ABOUT AOL
- For years special AOL software has been a mandatory requirement
on the user's computer for AOL internet access. But their bloated,
over complicated software does far more than provide internet access. For
example, a few years ago this author tested AOL to see just what it actually
does at log-on. AOL software is without doubt, SPY-WARE of the worst kind.
Whenever you surf the web, it records EVERY website URL you visit (and
probably other web surfing data) into a file on your HD. When you log-on, AOL
software displayed the message "Updating database..."
(Today's software may display nothing at all.) But updating who's
database? What it updates is AOL's database with YOUR DATA. A simple
search of the HD using Windows file search function found a text file which
used the AOL screen name for the filename. I immediately deleted AOL, and
I will never use it again.
- At the time of the test I was using dial-up access. The
size of this spy-ware file directly relates to how long the "Updating
database..." message was on the screen, as the file was being sent
to AOL. For the test, I let the file grow in size from considerable surfing.
After logging off and back on again, I timed how long the message
was on the screen. It took about 4 seconds. I then deleted all the file's
contents and logged on again. This time, the message was on the screen
less than a second. The test was repeated several times with the same results.
This proved the spy-ware theory that AOL is monitoring website surfing
by sending back to AOL at log-on a list of all websites visited.
- Other earlier versions of the AOL software were also
found by the author to also have this URL file, and these also
used the screen name as the filename. It is almost a certainty that current
versions of AOL still have spy-ware in some form. This is a clear
invasion of privacy - by stealing your surfing and other information,
they can re-sell it as marketing information. AOL is most likely
also performing front end data processing for big brother on their customers.
The biggest insult of all is that they are charging users each month for
the privilege of allowing AOL to spy on them. Any internet service
provider that forces you to load "their software" will almost
certainly do the same thing.
- Two years ago, one of AOL's software engineers accessed
their computers and sold more than 90 million email addresses for $100,000.
But what about personal information - has that every been stolen and sold?
If so, you'll never hear about it because AOL (like Yahoo) is now basically
a civilian intelligence collection arm of Homeland Security. This
is not conjecture, as they have already announced email scanning more
than a year ago.Anyone who has ever worked with information systems already knows
there are countless undetectable methods for employees to steal sensitive
- We can summarize AOL problems in this way:
- 1. An AOL account can be opened without your permission.
If they debit your checking account without your authorization, the burden
of proof for both AOL and the bank falls upon YOU, not them. It isn't fair,
but that's how life is in the information age. Banks don't question checking
account debits - their computers approve them automatically unless
you have a block in place first. You must go into your bank and sign a
form to put a block on your account to prevent these automated transfers.
But such a block if not specific, may prevent you from making legitimate
electronic payments in the future.
- 2. If their automatic debits bounce your checking account,
AOL has stated they will NOT reimburse you for bank charges. Even
if their direct debit was UNAUTHORIZED. This was company policy according
to an AOL telephone "agent" calling herself "Pam" who
spoke almost unintelligible English, at 800 827 6364 on 12/27/2005.
- 3. AOL spies on you overtly. They don't encrypt their
software's data collection files on your computer. It is also possible
that the unencrypted URL data collection text file is also a "throw-away"
- that is, a file put there for people to find and to distract the curious
away from finding out what else they are really stealing. What we do not
know at this time, is what other files in user's computers their proprietary
software is copying and sending to H.S. A packet sniffer software tool
is required to find out what other data they are STEALING.
- 4. AOL does NOTHING to monitor companies THEY AUTHORIZE
to automatically open AOL accounts. This in itself encourages fraudulent
accounts to be opened and unsuspecting people everywhere to be charged.
- 5. They openly admit they spy on user's emails, and without
any doubt the company is sending copies of pre-filtered information to
the government. And the ultimate insult is that people are PAYING to be
spied upon, as though invading your privacy is an exclusive privilege you
should pay for.
- The question is - what other files in your computer are
they copying when you log on? Does any user who pays AOL service fees every
month, ever see a penny from this illegal invasion of privacy and selling
your personal information? Of course not.
- SOME OTHER AOL LAWSUITS
- MARCH 2000
- "AOL class action lawsuits piled up" according
to one CNN headline. This lawsuit was about AOL blocking users from using
other internet providers. The suit was quickly settled for $15.5 million
in June 2005 according to consumeraffairs.com. This author asks: Did
this settlement result in less than a dollar for each AOL user
part of the suit?
- "AOL failed to inform customers that installing
the AOL 5.0 upgrade would make "dramatic changes" to their operating
systems and would interfere with their ability to connect to competing
ISP networks, according to a statement issued today by Hagens Berman, a
law firm handling four of the lawsuits, including the two most recent filings.
- AOL 5.0 promised users 500 free hours of faster, better
Internet access," attorney Steve Berman said in Thursday's statement.
"But in reality, many novice users found that once they installed
AOL 5.0, removing the software was nearly impossible." 
- June 2000
- A Florida judge approved a class action suit against
AOL. The company was blocking web access while pop-ups were being loaded
on the user's computer, and making the user pay for the time it required.
- July 2000
- "New York class action attorneys are accusing America
Online Inc.'s Netscape subsidiary of eavesdropping on consumers who download
software through its network. The law firm of Abbey, Gardy &
Squitieri has sued AOL in federal court in New York, claiming that Netscape
Communications Inc.'s SmartDownload software illegally monitors downloads
of .exe and .zip files." 
- February 25, 2002
- A lawsuit accuses America Online with charging thousands
of its customers for merchandise they did not order. The suit claims that
AOL Shop Direct shipped products to customers even when they clicked the
"no thanks" button on their screens. 
- September 29, 2003
- A consumer class action lawsuit accuses AOL of deliberately
double-billing hundreds of thousands of customers through a deceptive scheme
involving multiple screen names. The suit also names ICT Group, which operates
customer service centers for AOL, a division of Time Warner.The lawsuit
alleges that over the past two years, AOL has regularly double-billed many
of its subscribers by creating what it refers to as "spin-off sub
- December 2, 2005
- A lawsuit seeking to potentially cover hundreds of thousands
of America Online subscribers accuses the Time Warner (TWX) unit of illegally
billing customers by creating secondary accounts for them without their
- The lawsuit, filed last month in St. Clair County Circuit
Court on behalf of 10 AOL customers in six states says the company confused
and deceived customers about the charges, stalled them from canceling unauthorized
accounts and refused to return questioned fees.
- "AOL exploits its subscribers' confidential billing
information to unlawfully generate additional revenue by charging subscribers
for additional membership accounts that they neither order nor request,"
the lawsuit alleges, calling the scheme "common, uniform and continuing."
- AOL ARROGANTLY CLEARLY BELIEVES THEY ARE ABOVE THE LAW
- All the above lawsuits (and I'm sure there are many
more) show intentional actions against users. But this author has already
shown that AOL invasion of privacy and monitoring is far deeper than just
monitoring for .EXE and .ZIP files. It includes tracking web surfing, too.
The question is - why wasn't this kind of spying included in the July
2000 lawsuit? Why was it hidden? It appears a compromise was reached, limiting
the subject of the suit to two files types, instead of all file types.
Perhaps this was to get them to settle out of court. It reeks of another "back
room deal." After all, files ending in .DOC and .TXT contain far more
information on what users are interested in than .ZIP or .EXE files, which
are generally used mostly for programs.
- What's needed is a criminal fraud and spyware
suit against AOL executives that encompasses EVERY dirty little invasion
of privacy and computer trick that violates the Bill of Rights. Tthe suit
should cover AOL's negligence to monitor those third party marketers who
setup illegitimate accounts. As the expression goes, "hit em' in the
wallet, right where it hurts." With the BILLIONS of dollars of
revenue the company has, the few million that monitoring might cost them
won't even be missed. And just eliminating one lawsuit would pay for the
department's overhead. Are AOL company executives dollar wise and pound
- Everyone, everywhere, MUST be vigilant to watch out
for those that will steal your privacy. Privacy theft translates into stealing
your money. And what about those surveys like Survey Scout that promise
you'll make thousands of dollars? Don't get near any of them. The risk
isn't worth it. Losing your privacy is like being stabbed in the stomach
- taking out the knife won't take the pain away.
- If someone walked up to you on the street and offered
you $34.95 for your credit card number, would you give it to them? Going
on-line and typing in your card number and having it stored on a file
server somewhere is the same as doing just that.
- Ted Twietmeyer
- Mr. Twietmeyer is founder of www.data4science.net and
a frequent contributor to rense.com. He is also author of the controversial photograph-packed
book "What NASA Isn't Telling You About Mars."
-  http://archives.cnn.com/2000/TECH/computing/03/03/aol.suits.idg/
-  http://archives.cnn.com/2000/LAW/06/25/aol.lawsuit/
-  http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9595_22-522031.html
-  http://consumeraffairs.com/news02/aol_suit.html
-  http://consumeraffairs.com/news03/aol_doublebill.html
-  http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/
- Bob Barnes
- For the life of me, I don't know how AOL has become the
giant in the ISP world that they are. I had AOL once for about three weeks
back in 2000 (I chose it because I was travelling a great deal at the time
and figured they would be the most accessble ISP "out there," I
could not BELIEVE how they simply take over one's computer. Once you've
installed AOL on your computer, you either do things THEIR way or not at
all. Their programs even take over NON-WEB programs on one's computer,
affecting how you boot and use them and doing God only knows what with
the data that you keep on your system.
- Getting rid of AOL once you've discovered you're under
their thumb is almost impossible without completely wiping your hard drive
and starting over. And even then you must be careful, because AOL software
is on damned near EVERY Microsoft system disc that comes with EVERY PC
- Ditto with Microsoft Messenger. Eliminating it completely
from your system is nearly impossible. And it just sits there in that
little tray at the bottom of your screen monitoring EVERYTHING you do on
your computer and sharing it with ANYONE Microsoft deems worthy of it.
Your permission? It's automatically granted by verbage buried in that littany
of Greek above the "I accept" button you MUST click on to install
nearly all software.
- Those of us with high-speed providers are even more susceptible
to this spying, because our computers are online 24/7 unless we manually
disconnect from the modem, and who does that? No one I know, because it
takes too long to reboot or reconnect when you need to "get on."
Meanwhile, someone else (actually a LOT of someone elses) have access to
your data even when you're not using your computer!
- And, alas, most of us "users" who, in this
day and age, simply cannot live and prosper without the computer and
its associated web know precious little about what's going on within our
towers and laptops, or how to prevent it from occurring.
- Big brother is finally watching. I can't believe that
he is interested in my miniscule contribution to the world... but I'm certainly
not flattered by it. I don't need his "help" and I wish he'd
go to his room and stay there.
- FUNDS RECOVERED
- January 2006
- Our friend described who was scammed in the article
above was able to recover 100% of their funds. Surprisingly, it was the
bank that stepped in when contacted about the problem. They asked our friend
to come in, and an affidavit was signed stating the funds were withdrawn
from the account without permission. A new debit card was also issued
and the old card cancelled. Also, the affidavit further stated that a refund
promised by Survey Scout was never made. After less than 2 weeks, the funds
were restored to the account by the bank and also all other fees. Our friend
was very fortunate indeed.
- What our friend was told by the bank was that time
IS of the essence. If one waits too long, then pursuing a reversal of the
charges cannot be done. This time is measured in days to just a few
weeks. In fact, in some situations waiting until your next bank statement
(nearly 4 weeks) comes in the mail may result in no chance to recover your
money at all. If you are online with your bank, monitor your bank account
regularly to catch any illegal transactions. if you're not online,
then arrange to setup online access with your bank ASAP.
- One could dismiss the relatively small withdrawals
from the account as minor. The risk comes from your account information
being in the WRONG HANDS - and that account information can be passed on
to other companies. Or, the hard drive it is stored on can also end up
in the wrong hands when the computer is serviced, discarded, sold or just
given away. Small withdrawals can hit your account over and over,
amounting to a considerable sum in a small amount of time. Few computer
users ever think about that.
- If you find unauthorized withdrawals from your
account, take action BEFORE it's too late. In this electronic age time
IS of the essence for damage control! Banks as a rule do NOT check on electronic
withdrawals, therefore the job of policeman falls squarely on
the account holder.
- More and more theives today use keyboards instead
- Ted Twietmeyer