When your Dreamhost turns into a nightmare…

As I may have mentioned before, my web host for the last few years has been Dreamhost. There have been some problems with them over that time, but no worse than I’ve seen elsewhere. On the odd occasion I’ve needed to contact technical support, I’ve got sensible responses from people who seem to know what they’re doing. Since I added the virtual personal server to my package, I’ve found the performance to be generally acceptable for what I’m doing, and the price I pay is quite acceptable.

I’ve even recommended a few people to them[1] to friends. However, one thing I’ve never done is accept their *cough* helpful option of automatic payments. If you tick the right wrong box in the control panel, and you’ve registered a credit card with them, then when your payments become due, they’ll pop off and collect the money without actually warning you first. Now this might be very convenient, but I’ve always been wary of continuous credit card authorisations, not least because they can be very hard to stop[2]. And it seems that they can have very nasty unintended consequences.

As documented in the DreamHost Blog, earlier this week, a minor typing error led to a major problem. In an attempt to kick-start their billing process, they entered some dates in by hand to make the system send out the bills for the last few months. Unfortunately, for the last few months of 2007, they entered 2008, which led to the system billing people as if it really was the end of this year.

For people who don’t have the “please take my money” option turned on, this led to receiving unexpectedly large bills. For people who did have it turned on, it led to money that wasn’t owed being taken from cards and bank accounts. In some cases, several hundred dollars (perhaps more…) were taken unexpectedly. For people who weren’t actually expecting to pay anything for quite some time, being part way through a pre-paid year (or longer) this came as something of a painful shock. According to the blog post something in the region of $7.5 million was mistakenly billed.

They realised what had gone wrong fairly quickly, and set to work at undoing the damage, but it seems that getting money back into accounts takes longer than taking it out, and a lot of people are very upset with Dreamhost right now.

Now, normally, I like the light-hearted, often silly approach Dreamhost take when announcing things to their customers, but in this case I have to agree with the people who suggested (some quite vehemently) that this was most definitely not a time for that kind of levity. While people will be getting their money back, for some it has caused hardship, embarrassment and difficulty paying other bills. Dreamhost have indicated that they will be “making things right”, which will presumably involve covering overdraft charges, interest charges, and who knows what else.

Now I personally wasn’t affected by this. My main account is actually paid up until the middle of next year, and my virtual private server has its costs calculated monthly, so it’s not an automatically re-billing thingy. But it does concern me.

I’m not about to run away and find another host, but I really don’t feel able to actually recommend Dreamhost any more. This may change, depending on how this particular situation is resolved, and what they do to prevent future errors of this kind.

So for now, I’ve removed the little DH button from the sidebar. Not that anyone actually every clicked it, but I’d rather not be seen to be recommending that people sign up there right now.

[1] Note: if someone signs up from my link, Dreamhost give me actual money, provided the new customer stays with them past the 97 day trial period. Like most people, I’m not averse to free money, but I wouldn’t have recommended them if I hadn’t been (a) using them myself and (b) reasonably happy with the service
[2] Ordinary card payments can be bad enough. A book club[3] once took the same payment three times on the same day. That meant I was down about £150 at a time when I really couldn’t afford to be…
[3] In those far off days before Amazon…

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