Check Your Phone Bill Yesterday!I've been had. Twice, at least. If you're used to your phone bill bumping up and down once in a while, and you don't look it over carefully every month, you may have been scammed the same way, too. And if you haven't taken steps to protect yourself from fraudulent charges being added to your phone bill, you are a target.
Okay, I don't usually use this "blog-like-article" repository for anti-scam messages, because we actually don't have much experience being scammed - we are very careful about doing things that expose us to such risks. But two years ago, I found myself facing a $2800 lawsuit because a car I had donated to a charity was involved in an accident, eighteen months and four "owners" later. That was a new one on me, so I figured it would be a new one on most of our readers, too. So I posted a blog-like-article about that experience and steps folks can take to avoid having a similar experience.
This article is about ways shell companies are scamming hundreds of thousands of consumers by attaching fraudulent charges to their phone bills, and how the local phone companies have responded. Finding out if you've been scammed this way is relatively easy, and it's supposed to be easy to fix things so you can't get scammed this way in the future. But unless you know the facts, you're likely to be stuck for the charges, and the scammers will have their way. And most local phone companies, frankly, aren't much help.
Note: I'm not giving the name of ANY of the companies involved. Yes, several of them are obviously guilty of deliberate fraud, and my land line service provider should have handled it all better (in fact the jury's still out on some issues). But a quick review of the internet shows that there are dozens of companies engaged in the sort of fraudulent activities described in this article, and that nobody's land line providers have proactively worked to protect their own customers from this growing threat.
A "Wake-Up Call" - Until a few months ago, I thought "Cramming" was something that students did during exam week. Then, in September and November of this year, I was fraudulently charged through my landline phone bill for services that I had never ordered from companies I had never heard of.
Five frustrating and humiliating calls to the fraudmeisters and at least seven frustrating calls to my "service provider" later, I still don't know for certain if the problem has been "fixed" for good. But I've learned some lessons that might be helpful to other folks who have been scammed this way, or are in danger of being scammed this way (which is almost everybody with a phone of any kind).
How Can the Government Let This Happen? - This kind of telephone bill fraud is possible because of a well-meaning regulation established about the time AT&T was sliced-and-diced. The government gave other long distance companies the right to operate over anybody's land lines. Attached to that was the right to have charges for their services included in your local phone bill, something called third-party billing. Then the FCC failed, big-time, to police the massive abuses this has caused or to protect consumers from them.
How can Your Phone Company Let This Happen? - The fact is, that until fairly recently, there was no financial reason for most phone companies to police this or to offer you any way to avoid it. That is changing, but local phone companies are not universally helpful in avoiding, fighting, or recovering costs from this kind of fraud. As one example, my phone company, at least has:
True, none of the "sins of omission" seem to be deliberate acts of ill-will against their customers, but they all show a propensity for making each customer fight his or her battles alone instead of taking a stand on behalf of their customer base.
Slamming - the First Big Problem - The first big problem that "third-party billing" caused is called "slamming." A fly-by-night long distance company (which was only leasing bandwidth from a "real" phone company anyway) would contact your landline phone "service provider" and tell them that you had put in an order to change long distance carriers. You wouldn't even know about it until you checked your phone bill and saw that "Lou's Towing and Communication Service" was now your long distance carrier, and they were charging .80 a minute for long distance charges. Your local phone company would tell you it wasn't their fault, and there wasn't anything you could do except to change your long distance carrier back again and "suck up" the outrageous charges that occurred in the meantime.
Anti-Slamming "Holds" - Eventually, companies like AT&T that have BOTH long distance and local service would let you ask that an "anti-slamming" hold be put on your account. With such a "hold," on your account, the local phone carrier won't change your long distance carrier unless YOU contact THEM - theoretically. Of course, for companies like AT&T, providing anti-slamming protection was a no-brainer - it protects their long distance business as well as their landline customers.
Cramming - the Next Big Problem - Soon, though, the same hackers and creeps who thought up slamming figured out other ways to use "third party billing" to charge you for services you never requested. Instead of switching your long distance carrier, they simply add on other charges and hope you won't notice. Most people don't. This is called "cramming" and typically happens two ways.
Paperless Bills are the Scammers' Best Friends - We allowed our local carriers to sign us up for paperless billing last year, so we don't have a paper bill to look through unless we download a pdf and print it out. Slammers and crammers LOVE paperless billing - it makes their schemes that much harder to catch in time to do anything about them.
In fact, the first time we were crammed (that I know of without spending hours downloading and going through old bills) we had made a change to our service. So when our phone bill jumped $42 one month, that didn't even raise alarms immediately. Still, I downloaded the bill a couple weeks later just to check. Then I learned that a company I had never heard of was charging me a $40 MONTHLY fee to have our home telephone number listed in an "international internet business-to-business phone directory," a "service" I wouldn't have signed up for even if it was free.
My "service provider" (quotes deliberate) insisted that I call the company that had put the charge in my phone bill. That was a humiliating, frustrating, yet strangely enlightening experience (not unlike having your car burgled). I then called my "service provider" back and asked the rep if some sort of hold could be put on our account to keep this from happening again. She said she would put such a hold on my account right away.
After that first experience, I requested a paper bill from the phone company. The paper bills never came. A couple of months later our phone bill jumped by about $20. So I downloaded the bill and discovered another charge for another service I didn't order and had absolutely no use for. Interestingly, the next phone company rep I talked to said there was no such thing as an "anti-cramming" hold on phone accounts. The next one said there was, but I had to fill out a paper, and so on. Remember those urban legends about a fellow calling the IRS five times and getting five different answers to the same tax question?
At any rate, having the phone company tell me that they had put a block on my account to avoid such charges ever again was NOT protection. I have since requested paper billing three times from two different "offices," and have yet to see the first paper bill appear. Still, I won't let up on this demand and you shouldn't either.
Lessons Learned - The following lists of recommendations are based on our experience fighting fraudulent charges, talking to several scammers and several inadequately trained people at my land-line phone company, as well as several hours of internet research. If you want a blow-by-blow account of my experiences, I had started to write that up too, but I decided it was just too depressing to publish.
How to Protect Yourself from Cramming
Review Your Current Phone Bill Immediately - If you discover you are being crammed, jump to the next list and, when you've done that, come back here.
If you have access to previous bills, and you realize that you've been getting crammed for months or years, you need to contact not only your "service provider" but also maybe your state attorney general and the FCC.
Immediately Contact Your Service Provider and demand that they provide Cram and Slam blocking (sometimes called by other names such as "third party billing.") They may say they don't know what you're talking about. Keep them on the phone until they agree to do it, or at least transfer your call to someone who does know what you're talking about. Keep a written record of the conversation, including any confirmation #s or whatever they give you, and keep that record someplace safe, so that when they let the next set of fraudulent charges go out on your phone bill, you can refer back to it.
Don't let up the pressure on this point. My service provider kept telling me I had to fill out a piece of paper first, and then kept forgetting to send it or sending the wrong one. The last time I called back, the rep haughtily told me that she wasn't going to waste time sending out another paper, because I hadn't bothered to return the last one (the wrong one). I said, "Then how do I get this hold placed on my account?" She told me that there already was a hold on my account. Apparently there's an unwritten policy that if the customer calls enough times to complain, they don't really need the paper. In other words, tell the rep that you'll sign a form if they send it to you, but you consider your land line service company responsible for any third-party charges from this day forth regardless.
Be Proactive Safeguarding Your Personal Information and Even the Sound of Your Own Voice. Hang up on anyone you don't know or who doesn't have a legitimate personal reason for calling you (like asking for cupcakes for your kids' class party). This is especially true of folks doing "surveys," because if they can get you to say your name once, or even just to answer "yes" to one question, they can fabricate a phony recording of you requesting their services.
Worse, if they can get information such as your mother's maiden name, your own maiden name, or even your birthday (all of which are available through searches of public records and for a small cost from a wide range of internet sources), they're "home free." With the sound of your voice, especially if it's paired with any "sensitive" identifying information in their database, they can hit you again and again with fraudulent charges, and many land-line providers are predisposed to take the scammers' side against yours every time it happens.
Avoid Internet "Fun Surveys," "Give-Aways," "Contests," and "Special Offers" from those ads that pop up or appear in the margins of sites you visit. Train all the members of your family to avoid them, too. The offers often look like "Get three free ringtones [or whatever] for answering a few easy questions." Or there may be contests that request your phone number in case you win.
You almost never get the free ringtones or gift card or whatever. What you do get is mysterious charge on your phone bill a few weeks later from a company that insists you or someone in your family ordered the service. And they have your e-mail address, phone number, or some other personal information to "prove" that you or someone in our family placed the order.
By the way, all the fraudmeisters really need to cram you is your phone number - any information beyond that is simply backup in case you dispute the charges. "Mr. Smith, we have a record [or recording] of a Becky Smith signing up for a free $20 'Best Buy' gift card if she would agree to try our service out for a month." By the time you corner Becky and figure out that she never applied for a free Best Buy gift card, much less agreed to sign up for any such service, you've already wasted so much of your own time that they're hoping you give up arguing and pay the charges. Sadly, many people do, which means that the scammers keep getting away with it.
Get a Paper Phone Bill - About a year ago, our land line service provider offered us some incentive for going to paperless billing. Sadly, the inconvenience of having to download my bills every month almost allowed the fraudmeisters to get away with big fake charges. If you've NEVER been crammed, you may feel confident just reminding yourself to check the bill every month. But if you are getting paperless billing, it takes a whole lot longer to download and check through last years' bills than it does if you have kept paper bills in a shoebox.
Request your paper bill early and often - I had to jump through serious hoops to go back to a paper bill - you might, too. So start now. If you feel bad about wasting paper or some such, cut back somewhere else, like your Monday newspaper. There's usually nothing in it anyway.
Establish a Baseline for Your Phone Bill - Learn enough about your bill when it's "normal" that you can recognize immediately when something is wrong. Generally your phone bill has a summary section listing things like:
Make certain you understand what those basic fees are for and the typical dollar amount of each, so if anything changes radically from one bill to the next, you recognize it immediately.
Also, make certain that no services appear in this summary that you did not personally request directly from your land line service provider. If some "other service" appears in the summary, you are probably already being "crammed." If charges for a new service appear in the future, you should recognize it immediately.
Review Every Bill, even if the numbers aren't changing much. Besides checking the summary, scan the rest of each bill to make certain nothing else seems out of the ordinary, like a bunch of long distance calls to a number you don't recognize, or calls of any kind billed by a "service provider" you don't recognize.
If fees for an unauthorized monthly service have been "crammed" onto your bill, there will likely be a separate section of the bill, with a "customer service" number. It may even have a little logo and the name of the service that you supposedly ordered. Don't be surprised if the company name and logo has nothing to do with the service you supposedly ordered. They're mostly shell companies. Some are "aggregators," that is they are billing services that are (knowingly) processing the charges for the original fraudmeisters. Again, if you have been crammed, don't call the crammers without a lot of prep, if you call them at all (which I don't usually recommend, based on my experiences). Go through the list below, and then decide whether you want to waste time talking to professional liars and con-men and -women just to keep the phone company that helped you get into this mess from having to waste their time getting your $20 or whatever back.
In case you wondered, your phone company won't bother wasting their time arguing with the scammers - it's more cost-effective for them just to give you your money back. Of course they won't tell you that, either.
What to Do if You've Been Crammed
Resist the Temptation to Call the Crammer - beside most fraudulent charges is a toll-free number. Don't call this number at least until you've read the rest of this article.
Review Past Bills - If you were crammed this month, it's possible that you were crammed last month, too. If you have paperless billing, you will have to download your past bills to look at them, a slow process even on broadband. But if you've spent the last year paying $30 a month for a service you never signed up for, you need to know. You also need to have this information on hand when you contact your phone company and, if necessary, take it further.
Google the Company That is Charging You - Try "XYZ phone cramming" or such. Chances are very good that you'll find links to thousands of other folks who've been crammed by the same company. You may also discover that the company is being investigated by the Attorney General in your state or some such. You'll need to know this "background" before you call your phone company. On your first call, your local phone service provider will probably tell you that, as far as they know, these are legitimate charges and you should sort it out with company that has crammed you. Your phone company will withhold the information that they have been receiving complaints about the same crammer for years. Don't feel bad. They withhold that information from their own reps, too.
After all, if the phone company reps can claim ignorance, they have a better chance of avoiding blame and getting you to vent your frustration on someone else. Also, if you eventually do jump through enough hurdles to get the fraudmeister to agree to credit your account, your phone company won't be "out of pocket."
Google Your Phone Company's Anti-Cramming Policies - Some are posted, although they don't always post their whole anti-cramming policy online. (See "Promises Your Phone Company Has Probably Already Made to Your State's Attorney General" below for more information on that point.) At least it gives you more "ammunition" when you call your phone company. And when the phone company's rep tries to get you off the phone by telling you to check the web site, you can tell them that you already have.
You might also try googling with the name of your state in the search field, like "XYZ cramming Indiana." In some cases, you'll find links to information about your phone company's promises to your own state attorney general - promises they won't tell you about.
Read the Rest of This Article - To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
NOW, Call Your Service Provider - As soon as you have the relevant documentation onhand, call and tell them you refute the charges and insist on being credited. Be polite, but firm. The rep is trained to tell you that you have to contact the fraudulent organization cramming you. Refuse. If you've really done your homework, you should be able to let the rep go all the way through his or her "script" without losing your cool or becoming offensive, and, yet, by the end of the call, still get the charges credited.
For example, you might tell the rep what you know about the company billing you from your internet research. Also, it helps if you can say you've already read the company's anti-cramming policies, and so on.
If it helps you keep you cool when you know you're being stonewalled, think of Mr. Incredible (from the excellent move The Incredibles). In one scene, the financial welfare of the Incredible family depends on him denying his customers services that they deserve. He goes through the "script" biting his lip, then finally bends his own company's rules to help the customer. As a result he gets a ridiculous amount of grief for it. Your phone company reps are in much the same position. And unfortunately, they don't have the "backup plan" of throwing their supervisor through the office wall when workplace pressures get too difficult.
Still, many phone companies, under threat of legal action, have already promised to credit this sort of disputed charges without you having to call the fraudmeisters yourself. The rep is trained not to tell you that, of course - he could lose his job for volunteering that information.
On the other hand, if you've been scammed for months (and, obviously, ignoring your bills), your phone company will quite correctly resist crediting you for hundreds of dollars worth of phony charges. You may have to go to your own state attorney general and/or the FCC to report the fraud. But you really can't blame your phone company for months of phony charges if you never look at your bill.
Assume Omniscience - ANYONE you talk to about this, whether it's a scammer or your own phone company rep, will try to cast doubt in your mind about whether SOMEONE with access to your phone or internet account might have SOMEHOW ordered this service. Scammers may ask if you entered such-and-such an internet contest, or some such. But if you've done your research, you know by now that the company scamming you may not have contacted you at all. All they really need is your name and phone #, although they may also use fake contests, surveys, and give-aways to get other information they can use against you later.
As an example, fraudmeisters may name a family member and say that they have a record or even a recording of them entering some contest or signing up for some giveaway or some such. If you call their bluff, they may even play a recording of someone in your family answering "yes" to a question that no one in your family would ever really agree to. In many cases, they have already sent that recording to your phone company or some intermediate third-party "aggregate biller" as "proof" that you ordered the service. The more expensive the service, the more likely that they will try to "cover their tracks" this way.
How do you protect yourself from the confident lies and the fake proof? Here are two tactical suggestions:
But of course, the fraudmeisters know in advance that they're lying to you. So your best defense against such lies is strategic: Know EVERYTHING before you pick up the phone. "KNOW" that no one in your family requested the service in question. PERIOD. No matter what phony proofs they offer. Tell them you've already talked to everyone in your family and no one took that phone call or entered that contest or signed up for that giveaway or whatever.
Eventually you find yourself in the position of assuring whoever you're talking to that you can account for ALL telephone and ALL internet activity performed by ALL members of your family during the eight-week period preceeding the charges appearing on your phone bill.
If that sounds a little strong, remember that you're defending yourself against professional liars and people who have a vested interest in taking their side.
If you're talking to your own phone company, just keep repeating, "I've already checked, and I know for absolute fact that nobody in my family ordered this service (or made these calls or whatever). Your phone company knows that you've been scammed, but they won't credit you for the charges unless they know that you know you've been scammed and that you won't let them "off the hook."
Think Three Times Before Calling the Fraudmeisters - Your phone company wants you to make the call, since it's money out of their pocket if they credit you themselves (as many phone companies have already promised legal authorities they would). And it's true that if you contact the fraudmeisters directly and put up with their insults, defend yourself against their arguments, and threaten to call your state's attorney general, they will usually offer "out of the kindness of their heart" to credit you (although they'll usually ask you to wait six weeks before you see it on your bill).
But that doesn't mean the SAME EXACT COMPANY, using another name and fake service, won't cram you again next week. After all, they already have your name and phone number. And when you called them, you also gave them a recording of yourself saying your name and probably saying "yes" at least once. Come to think of it, that's a pretty good excuse not to call these folks at all.
One more reason not to call the fraudmeisters yourself - if you do put up with their abuse and stand your ground long enough to get them to agree to refund the charges, your local phone company is "off the hook," even if it takes months before your account is credited, if it ever is. Tell your phone company that you want your money back now, and if they think the "cramming company" should be responsible, the phone company should go after them. (They won't of couse, their time is too valuable to waste it arguing with known fraudmeisters on your behalf. Come to think of it, isn't your time as valuable as theirs?)
Go Back to the First List - Finally, once you feel that you have this month's fraudulent charges sorted out, go back to the "How to Protect Yourself from Cramming" and don't give up until you've achieved everything on that list. You will probably have make several phone calls requesting the same thing (paper billing, cramming holds) before they get it right, but don't let them "off the hook."
Other Things You Should Know: Promises Your Phone Company Has Probably Already Made to Your State's Attorney GeneralSince early 2009, several states' attorneys general and a few national politicians have done some saber-rattling against the scammers and against the local phone services whose apathy toward the welfare of their customers has allowed the scams to become an unregulated multi-million-dollar industry. Most local phone services have capitulated to some of the state attorneys' demands, not out of the goodness of their hearts, but for fear of being identified as acquiescent or worse in this growing "white-collar" crime spree.
As an example of one land-line provider that has capitulated to one state attorney's demands, we've added a link to an "open" letter that the phone company sent to the Attorney General of Connecticut.
Here is a summary of some of the things that many land-line providers have already agreed to, even if they're not documented on your own phone company's web page:
Update for December 13, 2009Several weeks after being told that my phone company would not send me another 3rd-party charge blocking form because I never returned an anti-slamming form they erroneously sent earlier, I just received another anti-Slamming form. I went ahead and filled it out, but in white space on the form I also wrote in: I am also authorizing XXX to block all 3rd party charges that XXX has not personally verified with [me] first.
They'll probably throw the form out or accuse me of defacing it or something, but I wanted something in writing telling them that I want third party blocking. Needless to say, I kept a photocopy.
Update for May 23, 2013Today, I learned that a very large land-line provider has capitulated in a class action lawsuit, agreeing to pay their customers back for ANY unauthorized "third-party" charges that appeared on their telephone bills between January 1, 2005 and January 14, 2013. I doubt that they owe me anything, since I was so careful and insistent. But YOU might have some money coming to you. I won't tell you which companies are involved, because I don't want to be sued. But this web site might give you a hint.
Regardless of your land-line provider, if you've never done "due diligence" on this subject before, now's the time.
ConclusionIf it seems that I've put almost as much time writing this article as I spent fighting the "crammed" charges, it is because I know that there are hundreds of thousands of current victims and millions of potential victims facing the same thing, and most of them will get the same runaround as I did if they just pick up the phone and start calling folks without any prep.
Also, you could probably tell that I am just a little cheesed about being repeatedly treated like an idiot stepchild by a company to which I paid over $3000 for various services last year. Seven out of seven acted like crediting $20 or $40 to my account was so inconceivable that they would rather lose me as a customer. (Okay, YOU do the math.) Again, I don't blame the reps, but I do blame their training and the companies whose lack of concern for their customers opened the floodgates for this mess in the first place.
By the way, the state of Illinois just passed a so-called anti-cramming law that still has some loopholes. But it's a start, and another sign that state governments are trying to make a difference, even while the FTC and FCC seem to be mostly spinning their wheels. Maybe you could call your state reps and ask them to take a look at passing a similar bill in your state.
Other ResourcesCramming: Mystery Phone Charges an FTC article on what cramming is and ways to reduce your risks
Looking forward to your suggestions, additions, criticisms, and anything else to let me know you're paying attention, I remain,
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