Consumer Watch: Be diligent checking phone bill or risk getting scammed

Consumer Watch: Be diligent checking phone bill or risk getting scammed

October 20th, 2013 in Business Diary

Ellen Phillips

Q: I've noticed a $3 charge the last two months on my cell phone bill. When I checked with the phone company, I discovered I had supposedly subscribed to a monthly horoscope service. Worse, the phone company never even verified this "subscription." What can I do to avoid future problems like this?

- Catherine Cell

A: Dear Ms. Cell: "Cramming," relatively small monthly charges slipped into your bill that can add up over time to substantial amounts, has long been a problem for land-line subscribers.

Thieves abound everywhere, it seems, and these charges, ranging from a few cents to usually under $10 can line scammers' pockets with a lot of wealth when the sum is multiplied by many consumers/customers. As you note, the stickler is that the phone company never bothers to check on the authentication of this so-called service expense and, to add insult to injury, takes a cut of the charge for itself.

Now, with cramming becoming increasingly common with cell phones, consumers' annual losses appear to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars with no end in sight. And even though I (and others) yell, scream, harangue, and harass to always carefully scrutinize all monthly statements, too many folks don't; therefore, the bill amounts - and those pockets lining of which I wrote - continue to climb.

So what should we do if faced with cramming charges? According to the Consumer Federation of America's Director of Consumer Protection:

1. First, check your bill before paying it. Vague charges, such as "enhanced services" or "service fee" often escape cursory notice.

2. If you suspect you've been scammed/crammed, call your land line or cell phone provider and request an explanation. If you're told that one or more of these charges comes from an outside company, explain you did not order this and to delete the charge(s). Although the phone company normally agrees to do as you ask, if the rep or supervisor - whose name you should obtain at the start of the conversation - refuses, then state you'll be in immediate contact with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to file a complaint.

3. Assuming you've gone back through previous statements to check for cramming charges, ask to be credited for these, as well. It could mean a hefty chunk of change for you.

4) If the phone company representative tells you to contact the third-party directly, don't even bother. In fact, to avoid any runaround, ask to speak with this person's supervisor at the very beginning of the conversation and go from there.

Ellen Phillips, a retired teacher, has written two consumer-oriented books. Contact her at consumerwatch@timesfreepress.com