Stay far, far away from WebHostPlus
It's been nearly eight weeks since I woke up one morning to find my blog completely gone. My web host provider at the time, WebHostPlus, then of Fort Lee, N.J., notified me when I called, and a few hours later by bulk e-mail, that the server on which the blog resided had been hacked, and that all the data on it had been lost. Within a day or so, they were breaking the additional news to me and to thousands of other customers on some 16 servers that there were no backups available. We simply had to start our sites all over from nothing, using whatever files we might have on our own home machines.
The story that WebHostPlus told us never rang true. A bit of internet sleuthing revealed that the server on which this blog resided was indeed still functioning, but in a crippled state. The idea that a web hosting company that advertised "secure" web hosting with periodic backups could forget to keep a secure copy of anything, ever, was incredible.
Within 24 hours of the disaster, they stopped answering phone calls and e-mails to their supposedly 24/7 support lines. The only people whom you could get to answer a call were the poor gals in the billing department, who of course had no help to give any of the frustrated and agitated customers who were ringing their phones off the hook. No one with any knowledge of what had happened was available, or would ever be available, to discuss the matter. And no, there were no backups anywhere, so please go away. When I mentioned toward the end of the last ridiculous conversation that I was an attorney and that I might have to take legal action to get my old files back from her company, one of the billing people responded, in a very neutral tone of voice, "Sir, you do what you have to do."
Since then, I've been consumed with the technical side of blogging as I've brought the site back to life. It's been a wonderful education, and some of my best blogoshere buddies have blessed me with their kind advice and assistance, but the restoration has come at an enormous logistical and emotional cost. And the hassles aren't finished yet. By converting my four-year-old blog with thousands of entries to new blogging software, I've created a serious drain on the server at my new web host -- so much so that I'm going to have to pay quite a bit more than before to keep this site in operation. Ad revenues, which have now started trickling in, should defray at least some of the additional costs, but it's not a happy subject for me to ruminate about. This is supposed to be a hobby.
Anyway, now's a good time to get off my chest what I've been carrying around since the fateful morning of August 30: You would have to be out of your mind to do business with WebHostPlus. They'll lose your data and laugh in your face. And even if you haven't already made the mistake of trusting your work to them, be aware that they're buying up many smaller web hosts and subjecting the hapless customers of the target companies to the same horrible service and security risks. If WebHostPlus takes over your web hosting service, heed the advice that I was too stupid to take back when they took over mine: Get on the phone, find a new host, and get your site off WebHostPlus as quickly as you can! Run, do not walk.
This is not just an angry customer lashing out with rash accusations in the immediate aftermath of a tech snafu. I have now had many weeks to think and learn about what they did to me and so many other former customers of an acquired outfit called Netbunch. It was an abomination -- an outrage -- and if you hang around for too long after they take over your host, you will learn their shortcomings the hard way, as I did.
To support these assertions, I'm going to bore readers with a couple of stories: one, as much as I can reconstruct of the chronology of what befell my account on WebHostPlus; and the other, a pointer to the many horror stories told not only by ex-Netbunch customers, but also by the poor clients of other companies whose operations WebHostPlus has absorbed and then wrecked.
I first started using a web host and my own domain in August of 2003. Before that, I had been blogging for a little over a year on Blogspot. My first host, to whom the lovely Emily of Strangechord referred me, was called dr2.net, and it was operated by a guy named Matt Eli. Matt was a student, I think, and at times it seemed as though the server was a computer in his dorm room. At one point along the way, I recall that a help ticket was responded to with a message like, "I have a final this afternoon, so I can't get to it until tonight." But the server worked pretty well, most of the time, and it was a dirt cheap service.
After a while, Matt sold out to an outfit called Mesopia. These folks provided about the same level of service as Eli -- generally not great and at times not very professional, but generally not terrible, either. The main man during this phase was Jay Higdon, who was technically savvy but would get defensive and occasionaly nasty if you said anything negative on the "community forums" that Mesopia had set up. The server on which my site lived, called Ivory, had its share of outages, and I got to know the server status page on Mesopia's site better than I should have had to. But again, things were cheap, and eventually Higdon always got things back in order.
As months passed, Mesopia's service seemed to be heading downhill. Help requests, previously greeted with defensiveness, were starting not to be responded to at all, and in time we were all informed that Mesopia was being "rebranded" as Netbunch. Sometimes support tickets would be closed without the problems being fixed, and with no notice to the customer. By January of this year, Netbunch's poor service had become intolerable, and I was ready to jump ship -- so much so that I opened an account on another web host, called InMotionHosting. InMotion has been quite good to me so far, and I should have followed through with migrating my blog over there then.
But just as I was ready to tackle that task -- which at the time seemed daunting -- along came the announcement that WebHostPlus had bought Netbunch from Higdon. The increasingly bad service that Netbuch was providing stabilized somewhat in WebHostPlus' hands, and after a few weeks of actually getting help tickets taken care of relatively promptly, I decided to stay with WebHostPlus.
Now, I was warned how bad it could get. Not only were there "WebHostPlus sucks" messages up around the internet, but also, back in early August of this year, WebHostPlus screwed up and let the domain for this blog expire. Matt Eli had assured me in the summer of 2005 that my domain had been renewed for two years. Foolishly, I took his word for it, not knowing how to do a WHOIS search and find out for myself what the domain registrar (a Seattle-area outfit called eNom) thought about it. Readers who were around in August will doubtlessly recall that embarrassing incident. WebHostPlus got the domain back up after a day or so.
But now let's get down to the real insult -- the alleged "hack" on August 30, the big crash, and the events leading up to it. The circumstances leading up to this disaster strongly indicate to me that the facts are not as WebHostPlus led us to believe.
On August 19 and 20, the site was down for quite a while, as WebHostPlus told us that it was migrating our sites to a new server. Some readers had trouble finding us for a while, as the IP address of the site had changed.
Ten days later, supposedly, someone hacked into all the Netbunch servers, destroying the data on all of them and all of the backups as well. The site was down by 5 a.m. on August 30, and in fact it may have crashed several hours before. Several early communications from WebHostPlus referred to "the FBI." At one point, one of the billing clerks there told me that the company had hired a former FBI agent to look into the hacking. One e-mail from another person at WebHostPlus said that it was the actual FBI that was investigating:
We are sorry to inform you that We had 16 servers completely wiped clean of all data. We are working with FBI and other Law enforcement officials at the present time.A couple of very bad days later, I discovered that the WebHostPlus server was still up, but running in crippled condition. Indeed, as I write this a couple of months later, it's still up in that state. Check it out: http://188.8.131.52/~bojack/index.shtml. My web pages were there, but I couldn't (and still can't) get into the control panel that gave me access into the databases, which are the key to a blog. And so the long, hard rebuilding of the site began.
At this point all we can do is recreate your account and give you 1 month of credit for the loss. If any data is recoverable, we will restore it.
It turns out that WebHostPlus are some truly bad actors. They have left a trail of broken promises not only with customers, but also with the people from whom they've purchased companies. Netbunch was not the first such company; there was another one called Dinix and one called 1planhost as well. Last I read on the internet, they had closed up shop in New Jersey and moved to somewhere in Pennsylvania.
These characters are so bad that it takes quite a while for the disgruntled consumers to realize just how awfully they've been treated. But unfortunately for the villains in this piece, when you mess with tech-savvy people, they don't go away, and they know how to get in touch with each other on short notice. And so, not surprisingly, already the class action lawsuit is being prepared. Great news, but it's not enough. There needs to be a criminal investigation undertaken, and these creeps need to be put out of business.
For my part, I had paid them via PayPal, and so I believe (and fondly hope and pray) that they do not have a credit card number for me. And given that the crash happened right after I re-upped for a year with them, I have contacted my own credit card company, with which I paid PayPal, and put a stop on the charge. So at the moment, at least, I'm not out of pocket monetarily to WebHostPlus. But if you count up how much of my time they've wasted, the damages are well into five figures.
The web hosting business turns out to be a real jungle. I'm not usually the first one to jump up and suggest governmental regulation of businesses -- particularly not those involved in information technology -- but there ought to be some here. There needs to be a way to pull the plug on evil people like WebHostPlus before they hurt more innocent customers.
While I'm on here ranting away to no one in particular, let me add some advice to anyone who's got a website: It's a cliche, but you really do need to back up everything, all the time. Fortunately for me, the WebHostPlus folks were lying about everything being lost -- some of my backups were still sitting on the old server, and it was stilll limping along enough to let me download them. I managed to pull them off there and eventually use them to restore my blog. If what they were saying had been true, I would have had no backups at all. But even with what I salvaged, the data was two months old, and the intervening two months of content were missing. As a result, I still don't have all the comments from that period back up where they should be. And I shouldn't have let them get away. I could have saved a backup to my home computer the night before, or a week before, the crash. If I had, life would have been immeasurably easier.
It doesn't take long to learn how to do the backups. With a blog like this one, which uses a database set up in a format known as MySQL, it's that database that holds the key to your content. Back it up on the server you're renting from your web host, and then back it up again to your computer at home. Remember, if your web host's server gets nuked, all they'll have are whatever tape backups they have kept -- and that's only if they'll dig them out for you (which WebHostPlus couldn't, or more likely wouldn't, do). After a few months of blogging, the backup file you're making gets big, and the backup process takes a while, but it's nothing compared to the time you'll spend trying to grab your posts off a Google cache if you lose the database for good. (Come to think of it, I am going to stop right here for a minute and get a full backup going of this blog.)
Anyway, if Dante were writing his Inferno today, he'd create a whole new level of hell for the unscrupulous web hosts of the world. And you'd definitely find somebody from the WebHostPlus there, stinking up the joint. Avoid them or face the consequences.