How to Prevent 'Cramming' Fees on Your Phone Bills
The FTC just sued T-Mobile and here are four steps to protect yourself
Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer
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There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve been a victim of cramming — the practice of placing unauthorized, misleading or deceptive monthly charges of $1.99 to $19.99 on your telephone bill — and don’t even know it. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that as many as 20 million American households a year have cramming fees tacked onto their landline bills (the agency doesn’t have a similar figure for wireless bills). These fees show up on bills with vague descriptions, like “service charge,” “membership,” “calling plan” and “voicemail.”
Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued T-Mobile US, charging it with adding hundreds of millions of dollars in bogus fees to subscribers' bills for services they never ordered (ringtones, horoscopes, text messages, gossip, etc.). And the FCC announced it was also investigating T-Mobile for cramming.
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T-Mobile has called the FTC suit "unfounded and without merit," so the agency's allegations will be fought in court.
Even so, this is good news to consumers who've been complaining about cell-phone cramming bills for a long time.
Why? Because until recently, the government has said cramming wasn't a problem. In 2012, for example, the FCC issued new anti-cramming rules — but it left a large loophole, applying the rules only to landline phone bills. At the time, the FCC said it got fewer complaints about cramming on cell-phone bills.
A Cramming Primer
Before I tell you the best ways to protect yourself against phone crammers, here’s a little primer on the scuzzy practice:
For more than two decades, phone companies have permitted other firms — or, in industry parlance, “third-party companies” — to place charges on a consumer’s phone bill. Initially, the third-party charges applied to telephone-related services, like long-distance and paging services, that you could buy from an independent, possibly less expensive, firm.
But phone bills proved so hard for consumers to decipher that some third-party companies soon saw an opportunity to scam them by leveling cramming fees and scooping up the cash.
As law-enforcement officials and telephone companies started paying attention, the scammers’ methods became more sophisticated. They began discreetly hiding charges within the fine print of online sweepstakes, contests or “free trial” offers. Sometimes, they sent out checks that, when endorsed and cashed by a customer, signified approval of the cramming charges. The phone carriers themselves bore no responsibility for oversight.
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4 Steps You Can Take
Consumer advocates recommend you take these four steps to prevent cramming charges on your phone bills and to complain if you become a cramming victim:
1. Regularly check all your phone bills for unauthorized charges. Then, call your phone company to ask about any fees you don’t understand and dispute all suspicious activity.
You should call the phone company, rather than the firm that smacked you with the cramming charge, because it’s often hard to find crammers, especially if they’re scammers.
Your phone company might refund fees if you protest, but probably only a few months’ worth of recurring charges. That’s why it’s so important to review your bill carefully every month.
2. Ask your phone company about imposing a “bill block” on all third-party billing charges. You’ll want to check with your carrier to see what a block would mean. For some phone companies, a total third-party block could bar you from buying apps for your smart phone or making text donations to charitable causes. If that’s the case, you may decide not to block, but just to become more vigilant reading your bills.
3. Read the fine print for anything you’re signing that asks for your telephone number. By entering an online sweepstakes or contest, for instance, you may unknowingly be agreeing to pay monthly fees to the company behind the promotion.
4. If you’re a cramming victim, file a complaint with the FCC. Call (888) CALL-FCC or fill out a complaint form online at the FCC’s website. The FCC says it will continue monitoring cramming grievances to see if additional protections are needed. So, like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, if the FCC doesn’t hear from consumers, it won’t know there’s a problem.