Reading Comprehension: A Terrible Thing To Waste

from the venting dept

Nearly four years ago, announced its Amazon Prime shipping club. The idea was that high volume users of the site could sign up, pay $79/year, and get free two-day shipping. I don’t buy enough (or enough that I need quickly) from Amazon to make this worthwhile for me, but some friends use it and like it. When it launched, we wrote about it. No big deal.

In 2007, some people who somehow signed up for the program without meaning to, started Google searching the program — and commenting on that post, often complaining that they were signed up against their will. In April of 2007, one person noted that the charge on his credit card was denoted as being for AMZ*Prime Club. Within days, if you did a search on that phrase, we were the top result. At first, our comments started to fill up with angry messages from people who claim they never agreed to sign up for the program. Then… people started emailing and calling us demanding a refund. For a while it was a deluge of calls and emails, leading me to write a post warning Amazon that it was clear to us that many, many people were confused by the way they explained the Amazon Prime offering. That was because Amazon offered people a “free month” trial of Amazon Prime, after which they would be automatically charged the $79. Many people apparently signed up for the free month, and failed to read the details.

This continued for many months, and we ended up writing a second open letter to Amazon, pointing out that whether they knew it or not, an awful lot of people were confused and all of them seemed to be blaming us for the confusion. It was becoming quite a nuisance dealing with the various calls and emails. Some people in our comments noted Amazon was quite straightforward in how they described the details of the program, and we were wrong to tell them that it was too confusing. That may be so, but I can assure you that there are an awful lot of people who still don’t understand the details of the program.

It has continued to this very day — though we tend to only get two to three emails and calls per week nowadays, as opposed to the multiple complaints per day. To be honest, we’ve taken to ignoring most of the calls and emails, because it’s just not worth responding. There was one very confused older woman who called a bunch of times, and we just had to help her because she sounded so distressed, but for the most part, we let them go. Until… this week.

I’m not sure why, but I was glancing at the customer service email account the other night when one such email came in. It read:

Subject: refund my $79.– immediately [CustomerService]

—— Comments ——

I ordered some things from Amazon (for the last time, believe me) before Christmas. When I went on line tonight to check my bank balance I discovered that $79.00 had been deducted from my checking account withut my permission or prior warning. This is certainly not the way to get and keep customers. I want the money credited back to my account immediately, please. I do not remember anywhere on your website where it asked if I was willing to participate in this program. If there had been, I would have said NO!

I will be expecting an e-mail from you tomorrow. My cell phone is broken and I am waiting for a new one to be shipped to me which should take about a week. I certainly do not hope that I have to speak with you about this again.

I was going to just ignore it, but since the woman seemed to realize that the problem was with Amazon, and it only took a second, I figured I’d email her back a quick note:

Perhaps you should try contacting Amazon instead of us?

Simple, to the point… I thought I was being helpful. The woman clearly saw the email, because she replied immediately to me… but it was a blank email, other than her signature being appended above my response to her. I thought it was odd, but let it go, figuring it was an accidental reply (or maybe she even meant to say thanks for sending her in the right direction). The next morning, we received another feedback form message from the same woman:

Subject: need money put back into my checking account [CustomerService]

—— Comments ——

This morning as I was checking my bank, I realized that your organization had debited $79.00 from my checking account for something called : “tech dirt”. This simply looks like current events. I am not interested in it and need to have the $79.00 redeposited into my husband’s and my checking account immediately before we become overdrawn. I can be reached at my e-mail today – my cell phone broke and I am waiting for a new one to be shipped to me.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Now, at this point, it’s obvious the woman is lying. She had emailed us the night before about it, recognizing that it was a charge from Amazon and not Techdirt. This was confusing, but maybe (maybe?!) she was just confused. So, I tried to be helpful:

I am afraid you are confused. We do not charge people anything. We do not even have a merchant account with which to charge you. From your *other* email last night, it seems clear that it is that charged you for their Amazon Prime service, which costs $79. Please contact Amazon to have them take care of it:


Ok. I figured we were all done with things. But… a day and a half goes by and suddenly:

Subject: $79.00 refund [CustomerService]

—— Comments ——

I truly do not remember authorizing you to take $79.00 from my checking account using my bank card. I simply would not have approved of that high a debit. While I am sure your web-site is a good one, it’s a site in which I have no interest.

Because of that I am asking for a refund of the $79.00 as soon as possible. Unfortunately, my cell phone broke the other day and it will still be a few days until my new one gets here. The only way you can communicate with me is through e-mail: [email address deleted]

Hmm. Ok. Perhaps my emails to her went into her spam filter…? Even though she had actually replied (blankly) to that first one? I gave it one more shot:

Hi [name deleted],

This is your third email to us. We have replied to each of the first two — including the original one where you properly noticed that it was Amazon that had charged you — not us, so I am somewhat confused as to why you are now saying we charged you. We are a publication that merely wrote about Amazon’s program. We do not even have the ability to charge credit cards.

Your problem is with and you should probably contact them.

Five minutes later, she replies:

How the hell do I contact Amazon – it seems to me that you and Amazon are probably working in collusion to fleece people.

And… with that I give up. Apparently, it wouldn’t matter how clearly Amazon explains their program. There are still some people who will not be able to figure it out.

Filed Under: ,
Companies: amazon

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Comments on “Reading Comprehension: A Terrible Thing To Waste”

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Sean says:

Her emails kind of remind me of those Nigerian scams, “yes post please just 10k into this account for me to pay the tax on this 6 million dollar in bank and you can have half.”

I don’t know what kind of woman that is, but she needs a good shaking. And just remember, she’s probably driving a car on the road, as oblivious to the rules and other drivers as she was to your simple point.

Terrifying idiot.

Anonymous Coward says:

Based on reading comments to your stories, I think you get a lot of idiots who read your site. I haven’t been able to wrap my head around that. You have a great site, great stories, great ability for describing economics, you describe most everything wonderfully and yet, most of the comments are from mouth breathers. Therefore, I would like my $79 back.

Ed G. says:

Re: Re:

The ‘mouth breathers’ that comment are due to the positive effect of high Google search rankings of the TechDirt content. People these days believe anything they read on the interweb and rarely want to look lower than #5 on their search results page. So, go figure, you get these kinds of issues when you are just than darn good!

Anonymous Coward says:

Send one more email that says:

To contact Amazon, use this link:

I know you already sent it to her. Doesn’t matter. Once a person stops accusing and actually asks a question, answer the question without offering additional information.

I say this as a Help Desk person that deals with folks like this every day. They will always blame you and not Amazaon, that cannot be changed. However, since they finally got around to askign a simple question, a simple answer can be effective.

Hulser says:

Re: Re:

Funny you should mention Help Desks because the conversation reminded me of my experiences with customer support e-mail addresses. Here’s what I noticed…

1) Help/Support desks blatantly ignore information you provided. If you say “I tried rebooting my computer first”, after three days, they’ll write back and ask “Have you tried rebooting your computer?” and then add in the infuriating “It’s been a pleasure helping you” type comment.

2) Help/Support desks blatantly ignore any question after the first one. You have three questions about a similar topic? Forget it. They’ll “answer” the first and ignore the rest. And don’t even think about trying a “If the answer to question 1 is No, then what about…?” type question.

Sure, there are probably a different set of reasons for this type of issue than the Refund-My-$79 lady, but the problem of lack of reading comprehension exists from both angles.

Twinrova says:

[many] People are idiots.

Wow. I would like to offer my condolences to Techdirt for having to deal with someone like this.

And me. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Now, please give me my refund of $79 immediately, despite not being charged by Amazon or Techdirt.

I’ll choose (looks at last online purchase)…

…oh. It was Amazon.

Place my refund here →

Laughs@Idiots says:

Re: Opportunities

Good one!

“Dear Amazon,

Throughout the past month, I have received several hundred unsolicited emails regarding a service of yours. I have taken the necessary customer service steps to set them on the right track.

For my time and effort, I have charged $20,001.03 to your checking account.

Freelance CS Rep Mike”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yeah, but that half that is dumber is coddled in school, making them think they are special!

Heck it’s the reason that schools quit using the A,B,C,D,F grading system and went to Consistent, Satisfactory, Needs Improvement system. It’s also the reason every kid gets a trophy for participating, when no one gets a trophy for winning any more.

People are no longer taught at a young age that they are dumb or inadequate, as it would hurt their self esteem.

Josephine says:


The exchange sounds as if a friend of mine wrote it! She lives alone, uses a computer but doesn’t understand the technology, and whenever something doesn’t work as she expects it to, she blames. She loses her email, forgets passwords, disconnects the internet, calls tech support a lot, … and blames.

It’s a mindset.

Hulser says:

Re: blaming

Since you said this reminds you of a friend of your, I have to ask some questions. Would you say your friend is of average intelligence?

Not to be insulting, but from the exchange that Mike described, the woman seems to be of lower than average intelligence or, at best, purposfully obtuse. Is your friend functional in normal situation, but just can’t handle situations that involve technology?

Forgive my curiosity, but I just can’t wrap my head around how anyone can be smart enough to turn on their computer and send an e-mail, but not smart enough to understand the difference between a tech news web site and

Griffyn says:

Re: Re: blaming

I’m pretty sure this woman’s responses fit a known psychological phenomenon. I’ve certainly experienced it. Where you engage in conversation with someone expecting a certain outcome and your brain simply ignores everything the other person says that does not conform to your expected outcome.

Similarly with troubleshooting computer problems. Someone starts to explain their problem, you quickly think ‘ah, the problem is x’, and wait patiently for them to finish so that you can advise them, while ignoring all the further information they say that would have shown you that you were wrong, and the problem is not x after all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Great article on the Blackberry Storm!

This is a great review of the Blackberry Storm. After reading so many bad reviews I was beginning to doubt my place in the universe as I really love the Storm. But after reading your fair and balanced review, my faith in my ability to choose the right smart phone has been restored. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Great article on the Blackberry Storm!

Apparently writing a bot to post random positive reviews about a product. This makes me think that the Blackberry Storm is a terrible product. If I had read many bad reviews (which I haven’t bothered) I would agree with them, if this is an attempt to somehow reverse that trend. So… just for the Google engine:

Reviews say Blackberry Storm is a terrible product.
Reviews say Blackberry Storm is a terrible product.
Reviews say Blackberry Storm is a terrible product.
Reviews say Blackberry Storm is a terrible product.
Reviews say Blackberry Storm is a terrible product.
Reviews say Blackberry Storm is a terrible product.
Reviews say Blackberry Storm is a terrible product.

jonnyq says:

Re: Re:

Libertarian ideals take into account that people are “dumb”. They’re geared to work without the cooperation of the “dumb”. Socialist ideals are the ones that break down without the cooperation of the dumb.

I’ll grant that there are business practices that prey on the dumb (video professor, anyone?) and that’s why we have advertising laws, but in general, keeping the market open to stupidity in its basest form is what makes it work in the first place.

Jeremy says:

Sad but true, I hear it every day

I work for a company that has in its products some that have a free offer leading to a reoccurring monthly charge. There is a much larger audience out there than you would think that simply are either deceptive or too stupid to understand the basics of the offer they are signing up for.

We get calls all day, every day calling us fraud, scammers, etc. over a very clear incentive to membership offer is they signed up for. “You stole my money” “This is an unauthorized charge” etc. gets claimed all the time.

You get those that legitimately didn’t understand, though sad, you want to help them. Problem is many of them want *all* their money back, even shipping costs on the free incentive used to get them interested. Stupidity is not a ticket for free everything.

Another problem is the many-more-than-you-would-think out there that will just outright lie to try and get refunds. These same types, if you don’t refund, will abuse the merchant account chargeback system to not only get money returned, but also damage your ability to do business.

It’s a messed up world of Internet consumers out there, making it harder every day to do legitimate business.

BulmaRO says:

Some Idea

maybe u just need to make a format to reply to those 79 DLs refunds..

with the next stuff:
1)Tech Dirt and Amazon Aren’t Related In Anyway
2)Contact Amazon:
3)Please we don’t need you to reply to his email, no need to thank either.

and that would be about it, i guess, still there would be people around that but eventually it has to disappear.

anonymous help desk guy from earlier says:

Re: Some Idea

The reply to Mike will be:

1) If you aren’t related, why are you emailing me? Just give me my money back.

2) I did and that’s how I got to tech dirt in the first place.

3) See number 2. Please stop sending me in circles and give me my money back.

Answer only the question asked. Offering additional information only provides more information to be garbled.

Anonymous Coward says:

As a company we use a 3rd party CC Processor, and almost got into a PR problem with the reoccuring charge system.

It turns out our CC processor was “offering” all customers a “special” deal, 1 free month & then some monthly fee after that.

Yes it was shown on the order form (From them) and yes it was an opt out system. After 1 person informed us of it, we dug into it & saw that they decided to add this feature to all accounts as a bonus.

Well we turned it off an haven’t had any problems with it after. But the long story short is even the small business that appear to be doing the “free shipping” offer may not even know that they’re doing this if they are using a 3rd party CC processor.

Anonymous Coward says:

This has to be scam

This certainly sounds like a scam. The insistence on not being contacted by phone certainly sounds fishy. Also the fact that the second email was basically saying the same thing as the first one but using Techdirt instead of Amazon. I’m not sure how they could cash in on this, but it reminds me an awful lot of the Nigerian scams and the way the kind responses that I’ve seen to those emails.

Anonymous Coward says:

New idea: (for humor, don’t seriously do this)

Send her an reply with:

Dir Madam,

Sorry for the inconvenience. We would be happy to return the $79. We just need to verify some of your account information. Please send us a reply e-mail with your bank account, PIN number, CC Number and expiration date, SSN, … and the amount will be refunded shortly.


Anonymous Coward says:

take your cue from Cops

If you ever watch Cops (the tv show), you’ll notice that when they are trying to communicate something to stubborn/ not overly bright/ wasted/ etc people, they use simple directive statements and repeat them. ie – sit on the curb, sit on the curb, sit on the curb (mace).

While your certainly not in the wrong here Mike, I think your phrasing was a bit too polite. A more direct way would be simply:

You have the wrong person.
Amazon charged you.
I’m not Amazon.

Tailor you message to the person, rather than expect them to read up to your level.

Jono Barel (user link) says:

Re: take your cue from Cops


I think several people have actually got a VERY good point on the whole “I’m not Amazon” message not getting through.

I read your emails while I was reading the article, and they do come across as overly complicated.

Not that her obtuseness is excusable, she seemed to be making a real raging effort not to understand, but you could have gone the extra step to be more clear.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: take your cue from Cops

You noticed that too? I think the adrenaline makes them repeat the same garbled statement louder and faster, for some reason, which of course leads to less understanding by the victim. I wonder what the evolutionary value of that reflex was, back before guns and mace?

If the Police routinely received training in how to communicate more clearly, how to improve understanding if the first demand is not met, and how to get compliance by communicating correctly, I bet we would see fewer abuse cases.

PRMan (profile) says:


I have a number that is one number off from Domino’s Pizza and every once in a while we get calls from people. We simply tell them the correct Domino’s number and they usually don’t call back.

Every once in a while, the person mistakenly dials the same number again and I repeat myself, but they usually get it.

But for the one guy who called me back a third time, I just took his order, offering cheesy bread and 2 liters of Coke and Hot Wings. When I was all done I quoted a price that sounded reasonable and hung up.

He never called back.

Hey, I was nice the first 2 times…

Yakko Warner says:

Re: Domino's

See, you guys are lucky.

I have a number that’s one digit off from an Old Chicago pizzeria. Every once in a while, we’ll get a call asking for reservations, or “what time are you open?” Once, I said “Hello” and got a rude, “Is that how you answer the phone??” But it usually takes about two seconds to establish that they have the wrong number, and the other person apologizes (even the rude guy), and that’s it. No call backs or anything.

I never get to have any fun. *pout*

anymouse says:

Intelligence vs Wisdom

“Forgive my curiosity, but I just can’t wrap my head around how anyone can be smart enough to turn on their computer and send an e-mail, but not smart enough to understand the difference between a tech news web site and”

We tend to use ‘smart’ as a general measure, but it really consists of a couple components, Intelligence and wisdom. To use a quote as an example, The difference between a smart person and a wise person is that a smart person knows what to say and a wise person knows whether or not to say it.” As another example, a highly intelligent individual would know that standing outside in the cold/rain can be detrimental to their health, but they may still walk outside in a twenty degree storm in their T-shirt (Albert Einstein was a great example of a highly intelligent individual who didn’t always apply that intelligence to the world around him).

Richard 23 says:


What a stupid website this is. I can’t seem to find the section where you sell books. Like you care. I think you’re just trying to rip people off.

There’s no way the $79 membership fee was worth it. I’d like a refund please.

Why would anyone buy books from the Amazon anyway? I thought people were worried about the rain forests. Besides I don’t read Amazonian.

Rose M. Welch says:

Just gotta say...

…that I signed up for Amazon Prime during Christmas and it very clearly explained how to opt-out of the upcoming charge. In addition, I received a confirmation e-mail explaining what I had ordered and how to opt-out of the upcoming charge, with links. Last (but not least) a few days before the trial period was up, I received another e-mail very clearly stating that they were about to charge my card unless I opted-out, which they explained and linked to again. I was happy that they were so diligent.

Time Magazine, however, took my cc information last year and decided to keep it on file. Sometime in June they decided to gift all of their customers with automatic renewal. Even the ones like me, who explicitly said they didn’t want it… Luckily, I had the confirmation e-mail from the original charge, which showed that I didn’t sign up for auto renewal and warned me that I wouldn’t be automatically renewed without it. Roflmao.

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