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When "unlimited traffic" means "pay extra"

Brian Livingston uncovers a cautionary tale about how one unsuspecting customer got stuck by his ISP.

    People who want their own Web presence often set up accounts with Internet service providers. But in this wild and wooly market, watch out who's measuring your site's traffic.

    One example of how an ISP relationship can go off the tracks is provided by Global Internet Solutions, a service provider in Los Angeles. The company advertises Internet access for as little as $7.95 per month with the first 90 days free and a 30-day money-back guarantee.

    Each account offers at least 100 megabytes of server space to host your own Web site, as well as "no hidden charges."

    That sounds great. But Global Internet has managed to enrage numerous former customers who say they were overcharged hundreds or thousands of dollars.

    One is Al Sacui, who has a new Web host but says he has spent months documenting his bad experiences.

    Sacui uses Macromedia Flash software to create elegant, animated mini-movies. One of his latest creations invites visitors to click the words "francais" or "anglais" to launch a sophisticated, surrealistic multimedia clip, or "disastre," to see Sacui's complaints about his former ISP.

    Sacui signed up for a two-year Global Internet account last November. He says the contract he'd agreed to required no extra fees, regardless of the amount of bandwidth his site used. He was shocked, therefore, to receive a bill in March seeking $16,243 for 30 days' worth of "over-bandwidth" charges.

    The animator himself is the first to agree that his creations can fill a large pipe. By Secui's own calculations, his Global Internet-hosted site recorded more than 100,000 visitors and pumped out 300 gigabytes of content in February alone.

    That's more than the 10GB to 50GB per month that many ISPs allow their hosted Web sites to consume. But Sacui says it was permitted by his contract, and that Global Internet never notified him of a change.

    As a result, he filed a complaint with the attorney general of Pennsylvania, where he lives, and then with officials in California.

    No executives are listed by name at Global Internet's site.

    In a telephone interview, however, a Global Internet employee--who would identify himself only as "Adam ID #15832"--said "the charges have been dropped" for Sacui's bill.

    Adam cited a letter Global Internet sent May 7 to Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher. The letter, signed by "Alex GIS ID #757," acknowledged that a $70-per-GB charge (after the first 2GB) had been imposed in February.

    But, the letter continues, "we have decided not to charge Mr. Sacui for his exceeded bandwidth, and take the loss."

    If this were merely a dispute between two people, it wouldn't cause a ripple in the ocean of the Internet.

    But ISPs changing their terms without notice shows signs of becoming a serious problem, and Global Internet is a cautionary tale for many consumers.

    Kristopher Drey, senior product manager of Internet Services, a host-ranking site operated by News.com publisher CNET Networks, says negative customer reviews of Global Internet began coming in last last year.

    "We read through all of the complaints and noticed a trend that they were not abiding by their 90-days-free special promotion," Drey said. "Clients were signing up with them and receiving little or no service, and when they called to get their money back were either ignored or denied their refund."

    Global Internet was eventually removed from the rankings at the Internet Services site.

    Despite these problems, Global Internet still advertises "unlimited traffic" at other rating sites such as HostIndex. Meanwhile, other services that boast of "unlimited bandwidth" describe their extra charges only in the fine print of their online agreements.

    To preserve evidence he may someday need, Sacui now prints out Web-based agreements he enters into and has them notarized for free at a local bank branch. In these days when online terms can change, um, in a flash, that's good advice for any consumer.

    Brian Livingston's Wired Watchdog column appears at CNET News.com every Friday. Do you know of a problem affecting consumers? Send info to tips@BrianLivingston.com. He?ll send you a book of high-tech secrets free if you?re the first to submit a tip he prints.