CONSUMER FORUM

Avoid cramming of fake phone charges

Posted June 25, 2011, at 5:20 p.m.

Here’s a request for a little of your time that could save you quite a bit of money. All you have to do is read carefully when you receive your phone bill.

Careful scrutiny can detect “cramming,” an illegal practice of adding charges to your bill for services you do not receive. The fake charges likely will have misleading or meaningless labels, such as “service fee,” “calling plan” or “membership.” They might be for products or services unrelated to telephones, including diet plans, travel clubs or yoga classes.

Sometimes small checks are included with your bill. These may appear to be customer appreciation promotions, when in fact the small print tells you you’re signing up for something, and will be billed monthly thereafter. Again, read carefully.

The fees are often small: $1.99 or $2.99 charges are not uncommon. The crammers count on the multiplier effect, tacking the bogus charges onto tens of thousands of bills.

The Federal Communications Commission fired a warning shot at crammers last week. The FCC released a tip sheet for consumers to help them root out the phony fees, including ways to dispute the fake charges.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said the release builds on what his agency is calling the consumer empowerment agenda. It’s aimed at helping consumers use communications technology to its fullest without frivolous charges.

“We want to send a clear message: If you charge consumers unauthorized fees, you will be discovered and you will be punished,” Genachowski said.

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued what are called Notices of Apparent Liability recently to four companies for allegedly charging customers for long distance services they had not requested. The notices named companies whose unauthorized billing appears to have gone on for months. Those named were Main Street Telephone at $4.2 million; VoiceNet Telephone, $3 million; Cheap2Digital Telephone, $3 million; and Norristown Telephone, $1.5 million.

The FCC tip sheet for consumers is worth a look. It contains useful advice such as the following:

  • Read promotional materials and forms carefully before signing anything. Be extra careful of offers you receive by phone.
  • Review your monthly phone bill carefully, looking for the sudden appearance of charges for new services. Make sure you’ve really ordered those services before paying, and don’t ignore small charges.
  • If you suspect you’re a victim of cramming, call and ask for an explanation of unclear charges. If you’re not satisfied with the explanation, call your phone company and ask to have incorrect charges deleted. If that doesn’t work, you can file a complaint with the FCC for interstate or international calls. For problems with in-state calls, the Maine Public Advocate’s office can help. Contact the Federal Trade Commission for nontelephone-related charges on your bill.

As with many consumer issues, attention to detail is critical. Cramming is an ongoing problem, despite officials’ enforcement efforts; crooks will use all manners of deception and technological trickery to try to steal your money. Don’t let them succeed.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and NortheastCONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or email atcontacexdir@live.com.

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