These are no small bananas –– AOL is earning almost $250 million a year from these poor folks. Amazing. The AOL cancellation page begins with, “You want to break up with us?” Nope. I just don’t want to pay for it.

A strange thing is happening at AOL. The Internet content provider in 2006 stopped charging for its services. It ended the fee for e-mail and such, but it did not stop billing AOL members for it.

Result: For five years, AOL has been cashing in on users who don’t know they can cancel the paid service and still get all the benefits.

These are no small bananas –– AOL is earning almost $250 million a year from these poor folks. Amazing.

Part of the problem is AOL subscribers joined because they did not understand the Internet. They still don’t. E-mail is free. So are the famed AOL chat rooms and forums. Just go to AOL.com and enjoy. Free.

It’s not that AOL has kept this little secret under wraps. In 2006, the company in a news release stated, “AOL announces it will give away virtually all of its services, relying on ad revenue instead of subscriptions for its income. No membership is required for an AOL e-mail account.”

A friend of mine has an AOL e-mail address, so I called her and gently asked if she is still paying the AOL subscription fee.

“Well, yes, I like the service, and everybody already has my AOL address,” she said.

I tried explaining that all this is free, but I’m sure she was skeptical. How can something that’s valuable now be free?

AOL’s paid subscriptions are declining each year, down from about 8 million five years ago. Folks are getting the message, but not a certain group that basically doesn’t care to understand how the Internet works.

The deal is that AOL’s user base is far more important to it than the subscription fees. They make their money off ad clicks. That’s the usual way on the Net. Giving away services nets AOL billions of ad clicks, a fair tradeoff.

Most of its users have switched to broadband services and pay for Internet access there. Apparently, they don’t realize there’s a difference between Internet access and Internet services, which mostly are free.

So they keep paying, and AOL is not returning their checks. AOL’s top execs have said publicly they are amazed that people still are paying for their subscriptions.

They could end that right away with a note to paying subscribers. But why should they? Money is rarely this free.

If you want to switch your AOL account from paid to free, run a search for “cancel AOL subscription” and click on the link to www.aol.com.

The AOL cancellation page begins with, “You want to break up with us?” Nope. I just don’t want to pay for it.