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Bandwidth Buyers Beware

Early in May, Alexandru Sacui, 26-year-old creator of animation site Nosepilot.com, contacted Kathleen M. Walters of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s consumer complaints department. The Romania-born animator alleged that Web hosting company Global Internet Solutions ( Gisol.com) had overcharged him by some $16,243. The company promptly dropped the charge — on May 7, a Gisol representative wrote to Walters, saying that the company "had decided not to charge Mr. Sacui for his exceeded bandwidth, and take the loss."

Gisol’s reversal followed a two month-long campaign waged by Sacui in an online journal, which has led other Gisol customers to make their complaints public. According to Sacui, Gisol makes misleading claims about its Web-hosting charges, and other Gisol customers interviewed by Streaming Media allege that Gisol makes false claims about the company’s technical support services. The Pennsylvania Attorney General will neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation into Gisol. On May 30, Sacui also reported his case to the Philadelphia FBI.

The Gisol case — and its many strange twists and turns — draws attention to the lack of regulation in the Internet services sector, and the risk companies and consumers still face when they buy services from little-known online providers. It comes in the wake of Operation Cyberloss, an FBI investigation that led to the arrest of 62 people last month for Internet fraud. Following the arrests, FBI officials warned that criminals are aggressively exploiting the online world, where it is easy to attract customers and hide identities. "The old adage that you can’t believe everything you read also holds true for what you read on the Internet," said Tom Pickard, deputy director of the FBI.

Unlimited Bandwidth?

Sacui signed a two-year contract with Gisol last November for "unlimited bandwidth," at a rate of $7.95 per month. Sacui’s site, Nosepilot.com, soon became popular, far exceeding the expectations of the self-taught Flash animator. In February, Nosepilot.com recorded traffic of over 100,000 users. Sacui denies that Gisol contacted him that month via e-mail about "new company policies" stipulating bandwidth limits and additional fees.

Sacui says that he did not hear from Gisol until March 8, when he received a phone call from Gisol representative Brian Spivak, who claimed that Nosepilot had exceeded the bandwidth limitation of the service agreement. According to Spivak, Sacui owed Gisol $16,243. Contrary to the original contract, Gisol was imposing a 2GB per month limit on Sacui's site, and charging fees on the excess.

Following this phone conversation, Sacui registered the domain name Gisol.org to publish his complaint about Gisol. One of the first postings in Sacui’s online journal was a copy of his November 2000 contract with Gisol, which clearly stipulates a promise of unlimited bandwidth.

For the next few weeks, Sacui repeated his request that Gisol show him evidence of a bandwidth limit stipulated in his November contract with the company. Spivak did eventually fax a document to Sacui’s pro bono attorney, Mike Sullivan. The document purported to be the November contract signed by Sacui, but referred to a 2GB bandwidth limit — a stipulation not present in Sacui's copy of the original agreement. The contracts differed in other ways: Spivak’s April document contained spelling mistakes that did not appear in the November original.

Spivak refused to comment on Sacui’s contract when interviewed for this article. In the company’s May 7 letter to the Pennsylvania Attorney General, a Gisol employee — identified only as "Alex GIS ID #757" — said that the company attempted to contact Sacui in February regarding his bandwidth usage, a claim denied by Sacui. "We informed him that his account can be cancelled, or he has to upgrade his account to a dedicated server package," wrote Alex. "In case he will not chose either option, his account will be charged $0.07 per MB of bandwidth overage as per our new policies that usually applies only to new customers." Alex wrote that Sacui was "very busy 24 hours a day providing false information and trying to disturb us from doing business." Walters forwarded the letter to Sacui. Gisol declined to comment further on its decision to drop the $16,000 charge.

Gisol claims to be "one of the largest Web hosting and Internet service providers," with over half a million customers. But trace-routing software confirms that the company resells the bandwidth of managed hosting provider Rackspace. Gisol.com continues to offer hosting services at the rate of $7.95 per month, promising customers that "once you join the price will never go up."

Trail of Complaints

Other Gisol customers interviewed by Streaming Media support Sacui’s allegation that Gisol makes misleading claims about its terms of service. Scott Lenhart, an entrepreneur from Burlingame, Calif., signed an unlimited bandwidth offer with Gisol on September 26, 2000 to host his site, Ebituaries.com. In April, Lenhart got a call from Spivak saying that Ebituaries had exceeded its bandwidth limit. Spivak suggested that Lenhart might want to upgrade to Gisol’s next level of service, the cost of which he did not specify. Spivak warned him that failing to upgrade might put Lenhart in the position of another Gisol customer who now owed the company thousands of dollars. "I told Spivak that if another penny was charged to my credit card, I’d contact my lawyer," Lenhart said.

Lenhart maintains that Gisol failed to deliver the "24/7 technical support" advertised on the company’s homepage. The day after signing his contract with Gisol in September, he called the company with a technical query to discover that nobody answered the phone. In October 2000, Lenhart reported a technical fault relating to the statistics page of Ebituaries. Gisol did not fix the problem until March 2001.

Like Sacui, Lenhart says that Gisol screened his calls. Once Lenhart began calling Spivak to complain about the technical faults, he discovered that it was impossible to get through to Spivak from his home or business phones. Lenhart resorted to calling Gisol from a friend’s house. Lenhart soon found that he could not get through to Gisol from the friend’s phone, either. Ebituaries, which launched at the end of May, allows families to publish audio-visual and text-based memorials of their loved ones.

Eric Garcetti, electoral candidate for Los Angeles county council, signed up with Gisol last year, attracted to the $7.95 unlimited bandwidth offer advertised on the company’s site. In March, Garcetti’s site went down. "It was awful," says campaign database manager Leo Marks. "We were saying, ‘we run our Web site the way we plan to run our office’— and then our site just vanished."

Nobody answered the phone when Marks called Gisol to ask why the site was down, and he found himself navigating a maze of voice mail options and recorded messages. Marks says that the effect of the site failure on Garcetti’s campaign is hard to quantify, but that the technical hitch was bad for public relations. Eric Garcetti is the son of former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who prosecuted the O.J. Simpson case.

Gisol has also stepped on the toes of competing companies. Last September, Phil Timson, director of business development at GISnetworks, began receiving a series of e-mails from customers saying that their sites were down, or disputing erroneous charges made by the company. At that point, Timson’s company, which hosts Web sites for Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount Digital Entertainment, was known as Global Internet Solutions. Timson discovered that another company, Gisol, had opened up business a few blocks away under the same name — Global Internet Solutions. Timson informed the customers that they had mistaken his company for Gisol. GISnetworks (gisnetworks.com) and Gisol are not related.

Timothy Gray, Timson’s attorney, advised him to change the company’s name to GISnetworks, rather than diverting company manpower and money for the purpose of costly litigation. Gray reported Gisol to the Los Angeles District Attorney and the Federal Trade Commission.

Jane and Jay

The story of Al Sacui’s battle with Gisol continues to take strange twists and turns that would not seem out of place in one of his surreal animated films. Shortly after contacting the Pennyslvania Attorney General, Sacui began receiving a series of abusive e-mails from two individuals who called themselves "Jane" and "Jay." The senders urged Sacui to pay Gisol $16,000. On May 27, Sacui found that Gisol.org, where he publishes his journal, had been maliciously redirected to a porn site. An imposter had called Redirection.net to achieve this, quoting his credit card number, according to Sacui.

While Nosepilot continues to operate through its mirror sites, these, too, have now become the subject of unfriendly attention. On June 8, Megan Abbott, whose husband Kelly Abbott runs the Nosepilot mirror site Great Jones Street, received an anonymous phone call from somebody who threatened to hack Great Jones Street if Kelly continued to host Nosepilot.

Where Are the Watchdogs?

GISnetworks attorney Timothy Gray calls on the government to enforce trading standards in the streaming media industry. "It’s critical for the future of this industry that people be able to make these transactions without being swindled," he said. Gray urges law enforcement agencies to investigate allegations of improper conduct against Internet companies; he balks at the common criticism that such government regulation might ultimately entail taxation of e-commerce. But many Gisol customers remain skeptical that government agencies will take action on their behalf, and fear that their complaints, taken individually, will be low priorities for government officials with heavy caseloads.

In response, the government says that it takes Internet fraud allegations seriously, even when individual losses are small. Operation Cyberloss, the FBI investigation that uncovered online frauds representing a total loss of $117 million, extended to individual losses as small as $50. But, says Ross Nadel, who runs the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property unit of the U.S. Attorney's office in San Jose, Calif., "Unless individuals come forward to law enforcement, we won’t be aware of the wider pattern."

Officially, Sacui’s dispute with Gisol is resolved. But Sacui says that the company will not speak to him, and refuses to verify that the $16,000 charge has been dropped. And in a conversation with this reporter on June 1, Gisol’s "Adam" denied all knowledge of Nosepilot, and claimed that there was no reference to Sacui in Gisol’s database.

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