NYT, Twitter, Dell, Skype - a litany of holiday failure

How many things can go awry in 24 hours. Let's count the ways.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor on

Today has been a stand out for failure. All of this has happened in the last 24 hours. What else before year's end? What about 2012?

NYT - phishing, spam, who knows?

It seems that a number of people (goodness knows how many but a fair few of my Twitter followers, at least one of whom are on ZDNet's roster) received a weird email from the New York Times. Or was it?  The email kicked off with:

Dear Home Delivery Subscriber,

Our records indicate that you recently requested to cancel your home delivery subscription. Please keep in mind when your delivery service ends, you will no longer have unlimited access to NYTimes.com and our NYTimes apps.

It then included an offer to renew. This struck me as weird because as a non-US resident I would have no reason to subscribe to a home delivery service.

MaryJo Foley thought it was a spam email:

@dahowlett FYI @NYTimesComm: A spam message was sent broadly today with the subject “Important information regarding your subscription.”

Naomi Bloom thought we were being phished:

@jimholincheck @dahowlett I got one too. We are subscribers but haven't made any changes. Let's alert #NYT @NYT they're being phished.

...as did Gartner analyst Jim Holincheck.

NYT then seemed to confirm the potential for this being a phishing expedition despite the fact WOT indicated to me the email was genuine:

@InFullBloomUS @jimholincheck@dahowlett @NYT The email was not sent from The New York Times.

But then I receive another email from NYT saying:

You may have received an e-mail today from The NewYorkTimes with the subject line “Important information regarding your subscription."

This e-mail was sent by us in error. Please disregard the message. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

Well that's OK then - right? Wrong. Either it was an elaborate phishing expedition in which case the phishers are covering their tracks rather well or NYT did have a spam problem. To be perfectly honest I have no idea what to think. In other words, I have no idea who to trust. What I do know is that the 1-877 number quoted in the original email is untraceable. I tried though I stopped short of calling them up. That tells me plenty.

Given all the verbiage written about phishing, spam and scams, I wonder which among the brilliant social media minds out there has a solid point by point response for NYT that will help protect their reputation and our pocket books. The answer: 'It's complicated' doesn't hack it (sic.)

Twitter and t.co mess

While on the subject of Tweet responses I notice that Twitter takes all shortened URLs, whether from bit.ly, ow.ly  or whichever service and forces them down the t.co pipe. Who cares? I do. t.co refuses to resolve on ANY of my machines which are a mixture of iMac, MBP, Windows, iPad and MacBook. I can solve the problem by finding the link by right clicking the original as posted in Hootsuite but it is inconvenient. There's a certain irony here...t.co...TCO?

Dell Hell Part 2

Remember the Jeff Jarvis - Dell Hell story? Long story short, Dell pissed off man-with-a-foghorn Jeff Jarvis to the point where his rants about Dell's (then) crap service brought about big changes at Dell including a much sharper focus on end user satisfaction. All hail the power of blogs and so the myth of the customer with a power voice was born.

Fast forward to today and a post entitled Dell - a story of Great Expectations. For those of you not in the US and unable to access BBC1, that TV company is serialising Charles Dickens novel of the same name and today was the second of three episodes. There is therefore a certain irony in the use of the title. Back to the plot:

I’ve been a Dell advocate for at least 13 years now… Having bought a number of Dell machines for home use and having lost count of the many many Dell machines I’ve bought and used in a professional capacity. I’ve found them to be very reliable and the spec has always been good especially for high end developer PC’s.

However, after years of being a satisfied customer my respect for Dell has taken a knock.

There then follows what looks like a classic case study in how to annoy customers. Failure to return calls, failure to follow up, blaming others, unfulfilled promises, failure to provide the correct information and worst of all, the dashing of a son's expectations at the height of the holiday season. Our dejected correspondent says:

This means that my countless phone calls and DM’s and the expediting (prioritisation) has come to nothing really.

What happened? Only Dell can answer but it seems that whatever work they have been doing the last few years to smooth out supply chain and communications problems quite literally crumbled for this customer. One wonders how many others suffered the same set of problems? But it is the last piece of the saga that really grates:

I try ringing UPS to ask if they can deliver sooner. The lady on the phone is very honest and sincere (and very apologetic even though it wasn’t her fault) telling me that because the consignment is now on route they can’t change the priority. Whilst this is disappointing news to hear, I feel I am being treated well and appreciated the honesty.

Before ringing off I ask if it could have been delivered sooner, and what I hear next was unbelievable… yes it could, there are a range of options including next day etc… but Dell have sent the order by the lowest possible priority that UPS support.

Flabbergasted at this I DM @DellCares to ask how this can possibly be when they have expedited the order… to which they reply they expedited the production not the delivery!!!!!!


Dell can write this off as a one off, it can make excuses, it can provide explanations, it can even compensate but these are all very late in the day and will do little to remove the disappointment one 13 year old child undoubtedly feels. But what it cannot do is erase the indelible impression the company has made on this particular person. If only they knew what he does in his day job? Hint: he doesn't need a foghorn of the Jarvis variety. He has his hands on a large IT budget. Way more potent.

Skype - sorry, not our fault

For the second time in less than two months I find my Skype account has been compromised. Terrific. Last time I lost over €100. This time it was more like €9. The amounts are not important. What matters is that Skype takes no responsibility for compromised accounts, even when the user has done everything they can to secure their environment. What is worse is that even when the only likely alternatives left are issues at Skype - they still refuse to take responsibility.

Last time I wrote about this, there was the usual assortment of trolls, wiseass armchair security consultants and others trying to convince me it was all my fault and so I should put up and shut up. They can have that one even though I am pretty sure I had not done anything to invite trouble. Second time around? Not so easy fellas. And not so easy either our friends at Skype.

Following the last incident, I inventoried services that make calls on cards and bank accounts. I changed all cards albeit for different reasons over time and re-implemented security passwords EVERYWHERE. Today I live with a mess of passwords that I can barely remember and am certainly NOT going to vault in a cloud service any time soon. As I've found to my cost with LastPass, lose or forget the master password and you really are up shits creek. My solution is very old school but I know it is 100% secure. So when I get the latest email from Skype telling me that my account has been suspended due to unauthorised activity my BS antenna are already on high alert.

Unblocking the account using the real time chat was pretty straightforward. But then I discovered why it had been blocked. Today, someone had been using my Skype account to call up people in Ghana, exhausting the available credit along the way. As they tried to make more calls, Skype's internal alert mechanisms kicked off and in turn alerted me to the fact there was an issue but didn't elaborate.

Once again I go through the email pantomime of requesting a refund and being refused. The standard responses about it being my responsibility to secure my computer come whistling down the interwebs. This time, I'm not having it. Email number two from me:

I'm sorry but this is not an acceptable response. The first time it happened I can accept there 'might' have been an invasion of my system, but that is highly unlikely because I use Mac. Today's incident occurred on a day (today) when I had not downloaded any software, opened any emails other than from trusted sources that didn't contain any attachments or otherwise done anything likely to have given rise to a problem.

It seems to me Skype is simply not prepared to accept the fact its systems may not be secure.
For your information, I also recently received a legitimate email from Skype saying I had processed $125 in new credit. That was bogus though the message came from Skype. I would like this situation reviewed please.

Response from Skype?

We understand your concerns regarding your account that was compromised again. We will look into this for you.

However, you are not liable for this transaction in any way. If you suspect that your PayPal account has been fraudulently used, we suggest that you submit a Transaction Dispute via PayPal.com.

We have carefully checked on your account and we can confirm that your account has been hacked again on December 28, 2011. It shows that the hacker has created a Skype Manager account where $125.00 was purchased using your credit card. Unfortunately, we cannot issue a refund for the charges you incurred due to this incident.

Duh? Now I KNOW there are problems because I was able to verify that:

  1. The so called $125 credit never appeared on my Skype account
  2. The amount was never claimed via PayPal
  3. My bank did not provide funds to PayPal to settle any Skype credit claim
  4. I don't have a credit card registered for Skype use on that account
  5. What the heck has the creation of a Skype Manager account got to do with my problem and what is a Skype Manager account anyway?

Ergo it didn't exist for my purposes but is now throwing forward new problems. I duly provide Skype with all this information in extensive detail, asking them to once again refund me the lost credit. Guess the response?

Thank you for contacting Skype Customer Service.

We are sorry to hear that your account has been compromised and was charged without your consent. Let me further assist you on this matter.

Based on the information you provided, we have initiated an investigation on the matter.

Skype cannot refund any money you might have lost due to this incident. Every user has to take care of their security systems on private computers.

To prevent unauthorized use, we advise you to keep your password confidential and not to give it to any third party.

Please make sure you sign out of Skype when using the service on a public computer, and that your PC’s security systems are running properly and are up to date.

For more information on staying secure please visit: http://www.skype.com/go/security

We're now playing a game of electronic snakes and ladders, courtesy of Skype.

Marc Andreessen may well have declared Skype as a great example of disruption when it was sold to Microsoft. But he is utterly out of touch with reality if he doesn't remember that we live in a world of SERVICE not just inflated stock values. Microsoft, as the current owners of Skype has got to do something about this. Regardless of my personal and small loss, there are clearly gaping holes in Skype's service which have to be plugged if Andreessen's claims are to be upheld for the long term.

It is simply unfair to toss all responsibility onto users and fail to take any direct responsibility, let alone action to solve what is now a repeatable problem. And here's the rub - if this was marketed as an enterprise class service, brands would be all over Skype with lawsuits and the like. As it is, people like me are left to yell from whatever pulpits we have and hope that someone, somewhere is listening.

Final thoughts

As I said at the top of this post, all of this arose in the last 24 hours. Many of the social handwavers will be out there in the coming days telling us about the power of social media and all its variants. I'm really tired of that claptrap. I want something they all seem to be ignoring...customer service that means something to me. I want the delivery, not the reactive systems. Can we just have that in 2012 so that all this consumer power nonsense goes away?

Can we have customer service that delights? For once and consistently? Can we put to bed once and for all the excuses, BS and g-d know what and have our providers acting responsively and responsibly? Is that too much to ask? Or will we once again be faced with being beaten into submission by companies that for all their protestations and claims to social alignment and great service really don't give a damn about customers?

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