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How to Avoid Phone-Bill “Cramming” Charges

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Spotting unauthorized charges on your landline and cellphone bills isn’t always easy, but the penalty for missing them can be substantial.

Americans are paying more than $2 billion a year in unauthorized charges on their phone bills, an illegal practice called cramming, estimates a Senate Commerce Committee study released Wednesday. Charges can show up in the form of services you might legitimately use — long-distance fees, for example, or a downloaded ringtone — but what makes them cramming is that you haven’t actually used the service or otherwise authorized the charge. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission reports just 0.1% of consumers actually use the third-party services that they’re being billed for.

So what’s making consumers pay up? Cramming isn’t easy to spot. Charges are often small, and listed simply as a “service charge” or the even more vague “other fees.” “We’re glad that the regulatory bodies are looking at this,” says Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for Consumer-Action, a consumer advocacy group. “It’s completely bogus to bill people for things they didn’t ask for.” Phone bills are such a popular target because it’s relatively easy for an unscrupulous company to bill something to your phone, versus obtaining your credit card number, she says.

Earlier this week, the FCC released new proposed rules that would require phone companies to clearly identify and list separately any third-party charges, in a bid to reduce cramming. Even so, it’s up to consumers to avoid paying. “The onus is on the consumer to look at the bill and make sure it’s correct,” Sherry says. “It’s a huge drag.” Review your bill each month and call your carrier to question any charges you don’t understand. Carriers will typically remove and reverse charges for you, she says, although in rare cases you may need to reach out to that third-party.

The FCC says 82% of cramming charges still occur on landlines, so keep track of any long-distance or other expensive calls you make. On cellphone lines, carefully read the terms and conditions for any phone-related services you or a family member use. Sending one text-message for say, a special offer from a company may sign you up for a monthly subscription. Carriers may also allow you to block purchases on your phone entirely.

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    • Optic Internet Protocol charged me $44.81 and that is how I found out I was switched without my permission. I payed fees of smaller amounts without knowing it until they thought I wouldn’t notice this ridiculous amount. I spent three hours correcting it all. Told “AT&T” to freeze my account and bought a no contract cell phone for my long distance use. This is deregulation at work!

    • it happen to me. but it not like any you ever seen. i got 411 number that show up when phone was shut off at that time. now i taking them on tomorrow in court. but i cant just stop there. there other like me in my town that got hurt by this. i going to help them out. i willing get someone look in to this and i will put warning in town so they can get pay back. i think it time to step up and stop this nightmare. someone got be a hero to put stop to this madness…

    • It did happen to me. Was billed for two small items month after month, than I decided to call and find out what they were. The clerk wouldn’t tell me what I was additionally billed for, but she took them off.

    • I dropped my landline about five years ago and use Ooma broadband-based phone. Also I use a prepaid cellphone plan as I have limited use for my cellphone. Therefore I do not have to worry about “cramming” in my phone bill.

    • Unauthorized Charges on Your Local Phone – Utility Bill? R2
      FCC fines Verizon over ‘mystery’ fees $25 million and $52 million in refunds – 10/28/2010

      How to Find Them, Eliminate Them & Get Your Money Back!
      If your business still gets its phone service through the old “AT&T and Verizon, etc” local phone company (as opposed to one of the newer competitive phone providers) then you need to double check your phone bill each and every month for charges you did not authorize. You may not know it but the local phone company allows other companies to bill you through your local phone bill. And while the local phone company allows other businesses to bill you through your local phone bill, the local phone company does not verify that the charges being billed to you by the other company are valid. When these unauthorized charges fraudulently appear on your phone bill it’s called “cramming”. Unfortunately you as the business owner or manager are the only one that can spot the unauthorized charges and if you don’t comb over your bill every month to spot these unauthorized charges – you’ll pay for them.
      Customers get crammed when a dishonest company puts charges on their phone bill (landline or wireless) for services that were not wanted or authorized.
      Why does the local phone company allow other companies to pass charges onto your phone bill? “Third-party billing” is supposedly a great convenience in that you only have to pay one bill instead of separate bills for obvious authorized phone related charges like yellow-page advertising in the “real yellow pages”, 411 information calls and long-distance calls from your chosen long distance carrier. Over the years though, some less-than-scrupulous companies have realized that most businesses rarely scrutinize their local-phone bills. To take advantage of this, these companies have come up with elaborate schemes to place unauthorized charges on your phone bill that you’ll end up paying for without even thinking. Unauthorized charges you can end up paying for include charges for unwanted (and unused) email accounts, web sites, directory information calls, directory advertising in obscure publications, voice mail accounts and other services.
      In theory, before these charges can be placed on your phone bill, the company that is originating the third-party billed charges is supposed to have a verification of the order like a voice recording. In reality though, all the company needs to do to initiate the charge is submit your name and phone number to the billing entity. The verifications are only required to be produced if a complaint is filed.
      To prevent these charges from appearing on you business phone bill it’s helpful to understand the four parties that make unauthorized third party phone charges a costly reality. Party number one is any employee who can answer your business phones. The un-authorized charge is rarely random and it usually happens after one of your company employees gets a telemarketing call. Employees should be instructed to document and report any overly aggressive telemarketing calls they receive. Party number two is the telemarketing company that originates the unauthorized charges by trying to get your employee to accept some service for which you’ll be billed through your local phone bill. Party number three is the third-party billing company that has billing agreements with your local phone company. The name of the third-party billing is the one that is prominently displayed on your phone bill. After the third-party billing company’s name is the name of the company that is originating the unwanted charges. Party number four is your “former Ma Bell” local phone company that collects the unwanted charges (keeps a share for “Ma”) and then passes the rest to the third-party billing company (who keeps a big share) and then passes the balance on to the company that initiated the unwanted charge.
      Third-party charges on U.S. consumer and business telephone bills, most of them unauthorized by the customer, amount to US $2 billion a year, according to a new report from a U.S. Senate committee.
      Unauthorized third-party charges on telephone bills, often called cramming, cost one national retail chain $550,000 over the last decade, not including the $400,000 the company spent to fight the mystery charges, said the report, resulting from a year-long investigation by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
      Telephone carriers have made more than $1 billion[b] in revenue from third-party charges in the past decade, said Senator John “Jay” Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and committee chairman. Carriers get a fee for placing third-party charges on bills, according to the report.
      The best way for consumers to protect themselves is to call their local phone company and request that it shut off third-party billing services — many will, for free. Consumers who’ve been crammed and scammed should call their local phone company and insist on a refund; they should also file a complaint with their state attorney general’s office and the FTC. But most important: Scan those phone bills every month for surprise charges and unwanted services. They’re easy to miss.
      Following are some of the top third-party billing names and unauthorized charge originators you’ll find on your phone bill. If you see these names on your phone bill you’ll want to call the toll free number listed next to the charge to confirm it’s a charge that’s been properly authorized to be placed on your bill. Following are actual examples that we’ve recently found while auditing business phone bills.
      We recommend customers should review any utility bills issued by deregulated utility companies. (In most instances today, consumers are paying higher charges to the deregulated gas and electric supply companies).
      All Utility – Energy, gas, electric and water bills should be reviewed for proper reading and tariff.
      If you suspect that you have been overcharged ask for detailed explanation and or file a complaint with your State Utility Commission.
      YJ Draiman for Mayor of LA

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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