Phone Cramming

One of the things that you may be experiencing, without being aware of it, is phone cramming. This is where recurring charges for services you did not order or use are directly added to your phone bill. Ordinarily you receive a telephone bill and pay it without a second glance. In this high tech world of cell phones, internet bundles, Ipods, and other similar services, the thought of unauthorized charges added to a phone bill does not occur to the average consumer.

Ever received a call to renew your free online yellow pages listing that you never authorized in the first place? Ever entered an online drawing for a flat screen TV? Ever got a phone bill that you felt had bogus charges? If so, you may have been a victim of "phone cramming." This shady practice allows telemarketers or online vendors to add charges to your landline phone bill without you ever knowing you signed up for a service.

In addition to that, 3rd party scammers also take advantage and use your phone bill as a way to get you to pay for something you never requested or used. Just last year, third party billing generated over $2 billion in business. Unfortunately, and amazingly, 950 per 1,000 customers were not aware of these unauthorized charges on their bill.

Consumer organizations, as well as the State and the government, now realize that this has become a real problem. The companies involved add charges for services such as voice mail, calling cards, extended warranties, credit repair, extra e-mail, 'special' voice mails, and text messaging; they use toll-free numbers for free long distance calls that aren't really free; and any other charge imaginable. These, of course, increase the total bill of the consumer.

This is not a new practice. In fact, it has become disturbingly easy for businesses to do with the increased use of electronics. It has been going on even before 1997 yet overlooked because the fees are often very small on a per-bill basis and not noticeable even to those who carefully review a lengthy phone bill. It is anticipated that mobile cramming will become an even bigger problem as more people leave land line communication systems in favor of mobile devices. Here are a couple of stories from some women who reported their problems to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

I'm from Port St. Lucie, FL and was shocked when I saw an obscure $13.97 charge on my phone bill for voicemail. When I called to question the charge, I was told that my husband had ordered it. I told the company that was impossible since my husband had died three months before. They said they would refund the amount, but I'm still waiting and it's been over a year.

I've spent nine months trying to remove an $11.01 charge on my phone for web-hosting services I never ordered. I don't even know what web-hosting is so why would I order it? I think it's been long enough. Can you help get my money back?

The efforts of the regulators from both the FCC and the FTC to force phone companies to make bills easier for customers to read and truly understand are helping. These are called "Truth-in-Billing" rules and have been credited with at least helping consumers identify charges they did not authorize, although it has not helped improve the refunding system. In an attempt to restrict this practice even further, just this week, the FCC unveiled new rules that would require providers to create a separate list for any additional charge added to a bill. Also, regulators have been going after companies behind bogus charges that have yielded some of the largest penalties and consumer refunds on record. The FCC recently fined four long-distance companies $11.7 million for placing cramming charges on consumers' bills.

However, despite all these efforts, cramming continues. The bottom line is that it's up to you to check your landline phone bill carefully. See if there is any charge you don't recognize, and if there is, call your phone company stat, and have it removed. This goes for any type of landline bill, whether it is business or personal.

On a legislative level, Attorney General Lisa Madigan states that the fight will continue. Recently she introduced a bill - HB5211 - which would prohibit third party vendors and billing agencies from submitting unauthorized third party charges to local phone companies for billing.

"Unfortunately, fines and refunds are just a cost of business for many of these third-party scammers" Madigan recently stated. "The profit they make usually far exceeds any penalties or fines they have to pay back. If we want to stop cramming, we have to take the profit out of it. The penalties have to be harsh enough to deter vendors. We also have to ensure that telephone companies know when third-party charges are bogus and they have the proper incentives to avoid doing business with these scammers."

Reporting all bogus charges to the FCC and the FTC is a step consumers can take to help stop these illegal practices.
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