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How to Avoid Phone-Bill “Cramming” Charges


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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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 or tweet @SMPayDirt.