Getting uncrammed, or how I spent my summer staycation

Unauthorized third-party charges are showing up on some cellphone bills

August 27, 2012|Dan Rodricks

Here's a word of advice to readers with cellphones: Check your bills for mysterious charges. I found a few on my last T-Mobile bill, and it wasn't pretty — some $350 over the last year for services I never ordered from third parties I never heard of.

Apparently, there's a lot of this going around.

"People are finding charges on their mobile phone bills that they say weren't authorized, including mystery text services that appear out of nowhere and charge for content that people believed was free." So reports Elinor Mills, who covers Internet privacy for CNET.org, the technology website.

I spent the better part of a recent staycation day on the phone with various people at the other end of 800 numbers, trying to figure out why my phone was being charged $19 here and $9.99 there, monthly, for "text alerts" and "text subscriptions" and "text trivia."

It was particularly maddening to discover the charges several months after some of them had started — I hadn't been diligent about checking the bill — but even more maddening to be told that I had ordered these ridiculous, overpriced "services."

I had done no such thing. I smelled scam.

The T-Mobile representative I spoke with on the phone said she could not refund me any money; she could only offer to block future texts. (I learned, by the way, that the block option was always there, but customers have to ask for it.)

The T-Mobile representative gave me six 800 numbers to call, each of them to third-party companies that had charged me for unauthorized text messages. I was told I'd have to call each of them to demand a refund.

So that was fun.

I got one refund, of $28, from a company called Thumbplay. The fellow on the phone offered it readily, as if accustomed to people calling to claim a bogus charge.

Lisa Vaughan, another T-Mobile customer, had the same experience. In a response to a post about this matter on my Facebook page, Vaughan said the Thumbplay representative she reached didn't question her refund request. A check, for $9.99, arrived at her Catonsville home Monday.

Of course, she still doesn't know how the charge got on her bill.

"Since Thumbplay was an 800 number, I thought perhaps my son had signed up, thinking the service was free," Vaughan says. "However, when I later showed the printed T-Mobile bill to him, he was upset that someone had unauthorized access and claimed he did not sign up for any services."

Believe the lad, Mom. I'd be telling my mother the same thing.

I called the other companies that had been charging me through T-Mobile: SendMe, Mobile Plus, Consumer Mobile, My Mobile Care, Premium Customer Care. I got no satisfaction, only the insistence that I must have ordered their services.

They said there would be no refunds. You can imagine what a relaxing experience this was on my staycation.

Turns out, some people are taking action to put a stop to this practice.

CNET's Elinor Mills reports that Verizon Wireless and the Texas attorney general have filed lawsuits against companies that allegedly failed to tell people they would be charged monthly fees when they signed up to have song lyrics or news alerts sent to their phones. The practice, Mills reports, is known as "cellphone cramming."

Cramming — rhymes with scamming.

I wrote to T Mobile's media relations department to describe what had happened to me and asked a number of questions. Here's some of the official response:

"T-Mobile provides customers with the ability to purchase various services and products from certain third-party service providers (e.g., games, apps, ringtones, etc.) and have the charges for those services or products included on your T-Mobile bill.

"Third-party charges that appear on a customer's wireless telephone bill are those charges that the customer affirmatively authorizes prior to the processing of the charge on the bill."

Wrong. (Pardon my interruption.)

"Some applications or games may be offered to the customer for a free trial period, after which charges for continued use of the application or game are automatically charged to the customer's wireless bill unless the customer opts out of the service prior to the expiration of the trial. ...

"We encourage our customers to read all text messages and other third party messages carefully, especially if they are agreeing to any recurring charges."

Shortly after this, a T-Mobile representative called to say the company would credit my account $235 out of the $350 I had been billed by third parties over the past 12 months.

This was a surprise, of course, because I'd first been told that I would have to hound each of the companies for refunds.

I suspect it was special treatment because of my inquiry to T-Mobile media relations. If you've had experience with unauthorized third-party charges, let me know how your phone company treated you when you called to complain.

As for the rest of you, keep an eye on your bill, or call your carrier and ask for a block on third-party charges. Don't get crammed.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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