Do you feel comfortable giving your password to a tech support person?
As I departed the great state of Alaska, I will left behind approximately fifteen years of being a customer of Alaska Communications (ACS). We did not have many options up here in Juneau. If it wasn’t ACS, it was GCI. I started my Alaskan venture with GCI. They provided a cell phone service and a land line. I subscribed to an internet service as well. I had little to complain about the performance of the service, but the customer service end of the deal was probably one of the most horrible experiences I ever had working with a company. Due to a miscommunication about a change of my credit card, they cut off my service for non-payment. It was then that I learned three lessons: never pay for a communication bill with a credit card, never have the same provider for all three communication services, and never use GCI.
While GCI used cable, ACS used phone wires utilizing the ADSL protocol. 1 For non-geeks, that is a standard of network communication that is highly sensitive to the distance from the main switching hub. Old copper lines, especially those that dangle on telephone poles, are highly susceptible to signal degradation, resulting in spotty internet performance. But we were located near the switching hub and the quality of the connection was quite good. I also got to know several of their technicians. They were highly capable.
A Problem with Customer Service
But … the customer service end of the deal was not so rosy. Generally, response times were slow. This delay was one major contributing factor to an article I wrote in May on the slow internet. In order to gain some perspective on issues I faced, I had to come up with my own solutions. Even the ACS help desk chipped in a few ideas (they knew they had a problem with response time).
I checked with the Better Business Bureau to see if they had any data on ACS. Oddly, none of the telecommunication providers are listed as being “accredited”, including GCI and AT&T. But they were graded. AT&T received an A+, GCI a B+, and ACS a D-! Wo! Their bad grade was largely due to the slow response times to service requests.
Users in Alaska need to be mindful that the telecommunications industry has been going through some rough times. For the past thirty years it has been dealing with a tectonic shift on how customers use technology, from the copper-line connected telephones to cell phones, from dial-up modems to streaming services. The result is that providers have been stressed, forced to maintain infrastructure that is near end-of-life, while investing in a new generation of technology (like fiber-optic and 5G). Where we, as customers, experience this stress is usually with customer service. They are under-staffed, often sub-contracted out to some distant call center, many of which struggle to speak English. It can really get frustrating.
The Weird Thing About Passwords
For most of my IT career I worked in some aspect of security. I have seen some pretty strange stuff but ranking near the top is the way ACS handles the customer’s password. Get this – when you call for customer support, they ask for your password! I can’t even change my personal profile. They have to do it for me. In order to do that, they need my password. Last I checked, I was tracking user IDs and passwords at over 250 sites. Not a single one of them asks for my password when I call for assistance. Only ACS.
As a security specialist, a big red flag goes up. I think it is insane. I asked that they address this problem back in January 2022. No one responded and no one has yet to respond from repeated queries.
So be warned, the password you use at ACS should be unique and not even closely related to any other high-level secured account (like your bank).
AT&T (and others) use a similar strategy, but it is with a PIN, not a password. I have frequently gone into an AT&T store to change my phone or service, and they ask for a numeric PIN. The PIN only provides limited access. The password is different and provides me with comprehensive access to my AT&T account. Since they do not need to know my password, I am free to use the same password for other accounts. But because ACS uses your password, you are almost automatically forced to keep it simple. Imagine communicating “5L8gSyzuUiAxXsZ” over a sappy telephone link to a customer service agent? And you must make it unique.
To say the least, ACS is decades behind the curve when it comes to on-line commerce. Because I refuse to give them my password, the phone number I have listed has been obsolete for two years. I have bullied my way to tier-2 support, and to their credit the front line customer service agents have been cooperative. But how many people are aware of that option? Finally, after several years, I started giving them my password because it remained simple and unique.
What Can We Learn from This?
- Use a simple, unique password with ACS, that has nothing in common with high-level secured accounts.
- Resist giving your password – ACS needs to grow up. See if you can get a tier-2 support person on the phone and register your complaint about passwords with them.
- While being insistent, be courteous to the customer service agents. It is not their fault.
- ACS has a way to fill out requests on your own. Use it and voice your concern about the way they handle passwords
- Use multiple providers. I learned that lesson the hard way when GCI cut off my service. I lost my land line, my cell phone and the internet service. Since that time, I have used AT&T and ACS. When one service was down, the other was generally available.
- If you are going to use auto-pay features, use your bank and not your credit card. If your credit card gets put on hold or replaced, you may forget and risk loss of service.
- Finally, if your provider asks for your PIN, use a PIN that is unique, different from the one you use for your debit card.
Back to my negative experience with GCI, I rarely miss a payment. But, as noted above, I switched to using my bank to make the payments. I usually put it on automatic with an estimated amount that typically exceeds a normal bill. In that manner, if I am on vacation, the bill gets paid. Yet GCI remains, to this day, the only utility provider I have ever encountered that did not provide a grace period. Service was simply dropped.
Please note – ACS was purchased by ATN in 2021.
1 ADSL stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line. It is unique in that it utilizes the standard copper phone lines that are already in most people’s houses and are extended throughout much of the country. Advancements in switching technology have enabled ADSL to perform exceptionally well under most circumstances. It’s limitation is that it is rather sensitive to distance to the central office (where the switch resides) and it is also quite susceptible to the deterioration of the copper network.
Better Business Bureau — Complaints
Better Business Bureau — Ratings
See “Alaska Communications Enters Definitive Agreement to be Acquired by ATN International in $322 Million Transaction,” Alaska Business, January 4, 2021.
Several attempts were made to contact ACS security personnel in regards to the use of a customer’s password. No one replied.
© Copyright 2023 to Eric Niewoehner