Everyone slips up sometimes — but you'd expect tech journalists to be a hard-bitten sceptical bunch who never fall into the money-for-nothing traps that abound in the world of modern gadgets and web weirdness. Well, you'd be mistaken. Sam Costello tells a sorry tale of music-swap woe
You thought Americans got calls free? Think again
There's something about the internet, though I'm not sure what it is, that makes even the smartest people do stupid things.
I'm not so full of myself as to say that I'm among the smartest people on the internet but, because I'm a technology journalist and deal with the internet and the issues that shape it all day long, I figure I know a thing or two. But every so often the world and the internet get together to remind me that maybe I don't know as much as I think. One such convergence came to a head just a few weeks ago.
I love music and am always looking for new bands and new songs. That should have made me a sure-fire Napster user, but I was uncomfortable with the artists not seeing any money for their work, so I mostly avoided the system. But when I found out about eMusic.com, I figured I'd found what I was looking for.
EMusic.com was one of the first websites that offered a subscription service through which you could pay a flat monthly fee for unlimited MP3 downloads. And the artists got paid. It was perfect for me.
In October, I happily entered the digits of my credit card into my PC late one weekend night, ready to begin what would turn out to be a surprisingly expensive eMusic.com subscription.
The shortest eMusic.com subscription is three months and costs $45. A great deal, I thought to myself. If I manage to download 20 albums, I'll be getting them for only a few dollars each, much better than I would pay in a store. By the end of my subscription, I'd downloaded more than 70 full-length CDs — at less than a dollar each. I thought this was particularly Herculean since I was using a 56K modem to pull down all the files. But I ended up paying a lot more than $45 for all those CDs.
I remained blissfully unaware of exactly how much more it was for quite a while, as my roommate, in whose name the account was registered, moved to Los Angeles. In the USA phone bills are tied to the account holder's name, rather than to an address or phone number, so the first I heard about my new CDs' price tag was when the phone company called to say they were cutting off my phone service because the bill hadn't been paid. After a little asking, it turned out that we owed them nearly $500.
"Five hundred dollars?" I asked, more than a bit shocked. "Yes," the phone company representative said. "You've got about 10,000 minutes of calling to a single phone number in December alone."
"Ten thousand minutes? What number?" I couldn't believe it.
When she read me the phone number, I recognised it immediately. It was the dial-up access number for my ISP. What I thought was a local call turned out not to be. All the time I had spent downloading MP3s from eMusic turned out to be costing me 1.5 cents per minute. Not that much, but when added up, and multiplied by the three months of my subscription, it equaled $500.
Suddenly, those CDs that I'd downloaded, the ones that seemed like such a good deal at under a dollar each, had ballooned in cost up to about $7 each. I didn't feel like I'd got such a good deal anymore. In fact, I felt stupid.
I should have known better. You'd think, after all, that a technology reporter would have some savvy in these areas. Not me, though, and not that time. As I write this, a few months after paying that first bill and a week after getting a second that had some other large charges from my old downloading ways, the bank account is lighter, my credit card heavier — but I suppose that at least I'm a bit wiser.