Family history stays a mystery on

Readers report poor connections to scanty databases

“Who were my ancestors? What were their lives like? What did they do?” It’s pretty common for people to be curious about such things, and if you watch television you’ve surely seen commercials urging you to find the answers on Yet when our readers tried this, they found the experience disappointing enough to write us about it.

Their complaints fall into two basic categories: warnings that the data available on isn’t very good, and complaints of poor customer service — frequent  website breakdowns, access codes that won’t work, and other bad-IT matters.

SE wrote us on Sept. 18 to warn, “BUYER BEWARE!! They take your credit card number when you sign up for the free period, so you have to be on the ball to make sure you cancel in time....which you will do, since all they have on is public information you can get anywhere else…. You will not find photos of grandpa when he was a kid, as their ad suggests.… You can actually find very little information on”

But you will find many false matches, according to other readers. AB of Westbrook, Maine, wrote us on 9-22 to call Ancestry’s ad campaign a “bogus come-on”: AB tried entering an obviously fake name into Ancestry’s search engine and was told “We found 249,393 Record(s) for sngioeruhbnecl v;shndivn in our database.’ Anything to get people to sign up.”

False positives

Even real names can generate many false positives; just because someone shares your last name doesn’t guarantee they’re a close relative. On Oct. 1, reader MJ of Anchorage, Alaska warned us, “Do not pay for the extra international subscription. It only had only a few Norwegian death/burials and a few marriages. It is too easy to attach the wrong international relative with comparisons. There are too many name similarities even on the USA version to ensure accuracy. Name spellings vary so much. There are other companies who have more accurate information and are 1/4th the cost. Don't spend $35 a month for this service.”

Ancestry’s DNA-matching service also seems to generate too many false positives.  Tom R. of Branson, Missouri and AS of Denver, Colorado both wrote us in September with complaints. Tom said, “While Ancestry is generally a good service. Their reporting of connections of cousins in their Autosominal DNA test is really awful. What you get is a listing of people, many who have not entered their family trees. It is a time consuming waste to open report after report where no family data exists. Why do they report these?”

Consumers rate

AS said of the DNA program: “I can only urge people NOT to use this. My wife ordered kits for both of us virtually at the same. The first came in two days. The second required repeated phone calls and showed up three weeks later! Then the problems began. Their registration did not work. Their staff were useless. Worse than useless. Not helpful at all. To get a refund, I had to notify my CC company of their failure to perform.” AS concluded, “Save yourself a lot of hassle and don't get [Ancestry] do your DNA.”

Longtime Ancestry subscriber Robin L. of Plymouth, California, suggests that any decline in data and service quality is fairly recent; her main complaint is with the website itself.  When she wrote us on Sept. 20, she said: “I have been using for over 10 years. It is a great resource with easy to use interfaces. However, over the past 6 months there have been at least 20 days where some of the functionality of the website was down.”

Down time

She tried calling customer service, but got an unsatisfactory response: “[T]hey are very apologetic about the outages, but no consideration is given for the "down time". This is a paid subscription service and one should expect to get their money's worth. With days a month where functionality is not complete, they need to do something besides apologize.”

Robin also noticed a decline in the quality of data, which she blames on “software that automatically grabs data from the website and copies it,” resulting in “a proliferation of bad data. People are copying the data from other people's [family] trees and think it is correct, because, after all it is on”

She concluded, “When calling customer service, I suggest that people who are looking for a way to document their research, look further than”

Len L. of Lowell, Massachusetts, had no such complaints about data quality—because he never got a chance to see any data. He wrote us on Sept. 25 to say:  “What a racket! I ordered and downloaded Family Tree Maker over the weekend, but it would not accept the activation code. So I had to wait until Monday to call. I called and spoke to someone who emailed me a new activation code. It didn't work either. I emailed them back, but keep getting automatic responses that my case was being updated. I didn't have time to call until Wednesday evening (I mean, who can spend a half hour on hold?). I called and the person said their activation server was down and didn't know when it would be working again. She told me to try calling the next day.”

When Vickie C. of Fayetteville, North Carolina, wrote us on Oct. 1, she said she “feel[s] like I’ve been robbed.” She tried the 14-day trial subscription, but found nothing she couldn’t have found from public records or her own living relatives: “Everything I found personally was nothing but Census and vague military records. Later I finally found a couple of pictures that happened to be uploaded by my aunt. (I had no idea she had an account) She had done a bit of research with Ancestry but then ventured off on her own and got pictures and all sorts of information.”

Since Vickie’s aunt offered to share her findings with her niece, Vickie figured keeping her Ancesry account would be a waste of money, so “I canceled my subscription online and thought I was good to go.”

She wasn’t. Instead, she urges any Ancestry subscribers that “If you cancel online, be sure they actually send the confirmation email!” Vickie only received an email assuring her that a cancellation email had already been sent, and so, “thinking I was good to go, [I] never even bothered to check my email or log into my ancestry account.”

Only two months later, after receiving another bill, did she realize the cancellation never went through after all. When she called customer service, “the lady I spoke to seemed very nice. She said she would reimburse the money and it would show up in my account in a couple of days. The money never came so I called again…. the woman I spoke with today said there was no way they could reimburse the money. … From what I have experienced and read from other reviews the free trial is just a trap for you to get a surprise bill charged to your account. I am not pleased with their service at all!”

World Explorer

Neither was Brett B. of Lomita, California, who wrote us on Sept. 2 to warn “Read the Terms and Conditions before you sign up!” (which, to be fair, is good advice when dealing with any company).

“I signed up for the World Explorer membership for $34.95 a month, thinking I would find valuable information about my ancestry. What I did find from their resources was census information and other trivial items. The only thing of real value were the public family trees where the person who created it obviously had to gather it from other sources and then put it on Ancestry's site. If you want to see what is on there, and take the chance of dealing with this company, sign up for the free trial membership. But be warned, if you miss the cancellation even by one day, they will bill you and they will not budge because they play hardball with their customers. When I cancelled 1 day late (my renewal date was unfortunately on Labor Day weekend) they billed me for another month. The customer service lady was sarcastic and rude and couldn't have cared less. If you look in the terms and conditions, they say you need to cancel 2 days in advance of your renewal date. BEWARE!”

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