Are you a victim of cellphone cramming?

Attorney general tells consumers to check bills for bogus text charges

July 01, 2013|Dan Rodricks

You probably don't want to bother — because, let's face it, eating a salad with gritty spinach is more fun — but you really should take a close look at your cellphone bill. You could be getting "crammed" with bogus charges for sports trivia and horoscope texts you never ordered.

I've told you this before, and my Baltimore Sun colleague Eileen Ambrose has warned you about it in her consumer reporting. If you haven't actually looked at your bill in a while — either online or in the printed version that comes in the mail — pour yourself a beverage, sit down and take a close look. You could see unexplained multiple monthly charges, usually under $10 each.

Charges for garbage you didn't order, garbage you didn't even use.

And if you discover that you've been crammed, you could become quite — how shall I put this? — animated.

It's like finding ticks in your hair.

And it's especially irritating to discover that your cellphone company allows it to happen.

I bring this up again because of recent developments on the cramming front.

Last week, a federal judge in Georgia allowed a civil lawsuit to proceed against a company that is accused of charging cellphone customers millions of dollars for unsolicited horoscopes, flirting tips, weight-loss advice and celebrity gossip. In April, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against the same company, marking the first time the FTC has taken such an action on mobile phone charges.

I have to wonder why it took the FTC so long to get busy on this.

Cramming isn't new. Landlines have been crammed for years. Is it any surprise that this shady business has moved to cellular systems?

By the time I looked into this matter last year, I found all sorts of reports online about the scams, as well as an official government estimate that mobile cramming costs U.S. consumers an estimated $2 billion a year.

What are we waiting for? The practice should be banned.

Last week, 40 state attorneys general, including Maryland's Doug Gansler, urged the FTC to take action to stop crammers.

"Unfortunately," Gansler said, "until the FTC bolsters billing security, consumers should scrutinize every phone bill they get, looking for charges they didn't authorize and taking immediate steps to reverse it. Consumers should also do the same for every credit card bill."

What happened to me was typical: While going deep into printouts of my cellphone bill — because I didn't have anything better to do on my 2012 staycation — I discovered charges of $19 here and $9.99 there for "text alerts" and "text subscriptions" and "text trivia."

It was maddening to discover the charges several months after some of them had started.

But even worse, I discovered that my phone company would not refund any of this money; it would only offer to block future texts — an option, by the way, you have to ask for, otherwise you're vulnerable to being crammed.

Is that nuts?

My 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 spent the better part of a day calling each to ask for refunds. What a joy that was.

All but one insisted that I must have ordered their "services" and that the charges were legitimate. Only one offered to reimburse me, and that was for the sum of $28; the rest, as my mother used to say, told me to go pound tar.

In all, I had about $350 in charges for unsolicited texts over a 12-month period.

When I contacted T-Mobile's media relations department with questions about these practices, I got this 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."

Of course, that is just not the case.

Pardon my cynicism, but it seems to me that this whole thing could stop if cellphone companies simply refused to bill for third-party services unless specifically and clearly authorized to do so by their customers.

Gansler's office says Marylanders continue to complain about cramming, to the tune of $9.95 to $24.95 per month for each service, and they rarely get a full refund and are often unable to discontinue or block future charges.

Which reminds me to check my bill again. Though I cleared this matter up a year ago, I doubt the crammers will stop trying to charge me for stuff I don't want, need or even use.

So there it is, friends. Don't get ripped off. Wash your spinach. Check yourself for ticks. Read your phone bill.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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