Your legal rights: Don't get 'crammed'Most people don’t know that their telephone bill can sometimes be used liked a credit card; with third party companies placing charges for unrelated services or merchandise on the phone bill.
Most people don’t know that their telephone bill can sometimes be used liked a credit card; with third party companies placing charges for unrelated services or merchandise on the phone bill. As a result, people are surprised when they find charges on their phone bill for unrelated and unwanted merchandise or services. This practice, by which unauthorized charges are placed on a person’s phone bill, is known as “cramming.”
How can third parties put charges on my phone bill? Phone companies, both landline and wireless, enter into contracts with so-called “billing aggregators.” The phone companies make money by allowing these billing aggregators to submit charges onto the monthly phone bills of the phone companies’ customers. The billing aggregators in turn enter into contracts with a variety of third party vendors.
The billing aggregators make money by allowing the third party vendors to post charges on the consumer’s phone bill for their services, under the billing aggregator’s umbrella contract with the phone company. Unfortunately, in some cases the charges put on individual customers’ monthly phone bills are not authorized. This is known as “cramming.”
Why do phone companies allow this? Both your phone company and the billing aggregator make money by allowing third party charges to be placed onto your monthly phone bill. Unfortunately, while they make money, the practice can be expensive for customers who did not authorize the charges.
Some customers pay unauthorized charges for months before they notice them on their phone bill. The monthly charges, often less than $20, are designed to “fly under the radar” and escape the consumer’s detection. The charges are often buried deep in the phone bill where customers don’t look.
When does cramming most often occur? Cramming can occur in a variety of ways. In some cases, the consumer may not have done anything at all to give rise to the unauthorized charge. In other cases, the consumer may have clicked a “pop up” ad on the Internet or entered a contest or drawing where the consumer supposedly authorized the charge in the fine print. In any case, the bottom line for the consumer is the same: they are asked to pay, and often unwittingly do pay, expensive charges on their phone bill for goods or services they didn’t knowingly authorize and do not want.
How can I prevent cramming? There are several things you can do to deter and detect cramming:
• Scrutinize your phone bill. You should review your phone bill each month as carefully as you read your bank or credit card statement. In fact, in today’s marketplace, your phone bill can unfortunately be used much like a credit card. Carefully review your entire phone bill each month for unauthorized charges. It is important to fly-speck your phone bill from start to finish, because “crammed” charges often appear in fine print many pages into the bill. Charges may appear under innocent-looking headings like “member fee,” “voicemail,” “service charge,” “other fees,” “calling plan,” or “web hosting.” If you pay online, be sure to carefully review all charges online.
• Say “no” to seemingly free giveaways. Some crammers use prize drawings, contests, or free giveaways to dupe you into unknowingly signing up for their services. Remember, so-called “free offers” almost always have strings attached. Read the fine print before signing up for anything; even if it is touted as “free.”
• Ask your phone company to block third party charges. Some phone companies allow you to block all charges from third parties. Ask your phone company if it honors such requests. If it does, third party charge blocking can be a good way to avoid getting “crammed.”
What are my rights if I’ve been crammed? If you find unauthorized charges on your phone bill, promptly contact both your phone company and the third party to dispute the charges, ask that all future charges stop, and ask for a refund of past charges.
Under Minnesota law, a local “landline” phone company is not supposed to put third party charges on your phone bill unless the third party has obtained your express authorization to allow the charges.
If you notify your phone company that an unauthorized charge from a third party was included on your bill, the phone company must remove the charge. Your phone company must also credit your account for any amounts you paid for the unauthorized charges in the last six months, unless the third party that put the charges on your phone bill can produce within 14 days evidence that you “expressly authorized” the charges.
“Express authorization” means that: (1) if you signed up in writing, you have agreed to the charges in a signed, written document; (2) if you signed up over the phone, that an independent third party verification company has verified your identify with your unique information and has told you that you are agreeing to be billed for goods or services that will appear as a charge on your phone bill; or (3) if you signed up on the Internet, the third party has, within 48 hours, sent you an e-mail verifying your authorization.
You should also dispute the charge with the third party that posted the charges. If this company claims that you authorized the charge, ask it to mail you proof of the supposed authorization.
Be sure to follow up with both your phone company and the third party vendor company by sending written letters by certified mail.
If you are a victim of cramming, file a complaint with these government agencies:
Office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, 1400 Bremer Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101; (651) 296-3353; 1-800-657-3787; TTY: (651) 297-7206; TTY: 1-800-366-4812; www.ag.state.mn.us.
Federal Trade Commission (for complaints against crammers): Consumer Response Center, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20580; toll-free 1-877-382-4357; www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov.
Federal Communications Commission (for complaints against interstate phone companies), Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Consumer Complaints, 445 12th Street SW, Washington, D.C. 20554; 1-888-225-5322; www.fcc.gov.
Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (for complaints against intrastate phone companies), 121 7th Place East, Suite 350, St. Paul, MN 55101; (651) 296-0406; toll free 1-800-657-3782.