Web hosting provider uses Homer Simpson to notify livid customers of $7.6M overcharge

Some are not amused by the apology

If it weren't bad enough that Web hosting company DreamHost overcharged its customers by $7.6 million, the company seemed to have compounded that error by joking about it with an apology delivered by cartoon character Homer Simpson.

Many of DreamHost's customers were not amused by the way the company handled the situation. Some of them had had their accounts suspended because it appeared as if they hadn't paid their bills. They didn't think it was funny.

Yesterday, Josh Jones, one of the founders of the employed-owned Brea, Calif.-based company, advised customers that because of human error -- his -- on Monday night, DreamHost's billing system erroneously charged customers for an extra year's worth of Web hosting.

In a blog post featuring a photo of the cartoon character holding up a "fat finger," Jones said, "Hello ... how's your morning going? I hope it's been a little better than mine. We had a teensy, eensy, weensy little billing error last night ... my first clue something was up when I saw this morning's daily billing report (so far): $7,500,000. It turns out due to my excessively fat fingers nearly every one of our customers has been seriously overbilled in the last 12 hours.... [Y]ou thought it was a joke! Ha, the joke is on you! I guess. Um, OK, no, not really, I'm sorry."

Jones then explained that when he tried to manually correct a problem with the company's automatic billing system, he accidentally programmed it to send out end-of-year bills for 2008 instead of 2007.

"The end to this story is that of course, I'm very, very sorry, we're very, very sorry, and I'm sure you're very, very sorry this happened. I really am," Jones said in the blog. "I understand the sort of problems that an unexpected large charge to your credit card (or worse yet, your debit card) can cause. If the tone of this blog post seemed a little light, I apologize I don't mean to offend and I realize how serious an issue this is. I've been up since 3:50 a.m. trying to undo the damage and maybe I'm a little shell-shocked."

Jones said a new service was running that fixed all the future charges, re-enabled accounts that had been erroneously suspended and automatically refunded payments to credit cards that had been automatically rebilled.

"If, because of this billing mistake, you somehow incurred some fees from your bank or credit card company, please let us know ... and we'll do our best to make it right for you," Jones added.

While some customers were relieved to learn that the unknown charges to their credit or debit accounts weren't the results of hackers, others were not so forgiving.

"Perhaps I should have read this first as I just sent a rather aggravated e-mail over to billing," said Philip in a post on a DreamHost forum. "Glad you guys are aware of the issue though. That gives me confidence that it will be resolved. Thank you. Hope your support tech doesn't take my letter personally."

And Tara said, "Oh, man. This incorrect billing thing scared the crap out of me. I thought I was hacked or something. Good thing I checked the support first instead of going nuts."

But others were not as understanding.

"I was charged $548, 12 months twice!!! Had a total freak out! And no doubt my bank account is overdrawn right now. I hope this is resolved very quickly! Because it is NOT funny at all!!! Someone got their code very wrong ... Nice one!" Guillaume said."

A user identified as Stephanie called for a class-action lawsuit.

"You idiots have overcharged me $500. [What] is wrong with you people?" she said. "Plus I don't even have an email from you telling me that you have screwed up royally -- I have to go and search for an answer? COME ON. I hope that we will be more than compensated for this error (as in at least a year's free hosting) [plus] I will be forwarding all bank charges on to DreamHost. Class action lawsuit anyone?

DreamHost could not be reached for comment.

But in an odd coincidence in its December newsletter, the company told customers about its new office space saying, "If your next Web hosting bill from us is mysteriously tripled, now you know why."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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