FCC warning: Watch out for mystery phone charges

June 21, 2011

The sleazy practice of cramming — tossing charges onto telephone bills without permission — is alive and all too well. Part of the problem is that you could be a victim right now and you don’t know it.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said on Monday that his agency would propose rules to fight those hidden fees. He cited a study that suggests only one in 20 phony charges placed on bills is detected by consumers. The FCC estimated that up to 20 million Americans have those mystery charges on their bills.

Genachowski urged consumers to take a step that seems obvious, but apparently is frequently overlooked: Read your bill.

“There’s no substitute for looking at your bills and seeing if there’s something there that’s suspicious,” Genachowski said.

The charges are often hard to spot and can appear as those typically associated with phones, such as long distance or voice mail charges. Or they can be completely unrelated. The common thread is none were authorized by the consumer.

“We’ve seen people getting charges for yoga classes, cosmetics, diet products, and yes, psychic hotline memberships,” Genachowski said in a speech on the issue. “These improper charges typically range from $1.99 to $19.99 per month; it can add up to real money when so many Americans are struggling to get by in this tough economy.

“These mystery fees are often buried in bills that can run 20-or-so pages, and they are labeled with hard-to-decipher descriptions like U-S-B-I. Not surprisingly, these charges often go undetected for months or more.”

The FCC also announced that it had taken action against companies, proposing nearly $12 million in combined penalties.

“Cramming is not only illegal, it erodes consumer trust in communications services. The FCC will not tolerate cramming, and we are turning up the heat on companies that rip off consumers with unauthorized fees,” Genachowski said. “We want to send a clear message: if you charge consumers unauthorized fees, you will be discovered and you will be punished.”

The FCC has proposed fines against four companies it said charged consumers for long distance services they did not sign up. as follows:

  • Main Street Telephone ($4,200,000)
  • VoiceNet Telephone, LLC ($3,000,000)
  • Cheap2Digital Telephone, LLC ($3,000,000)
  • Norristown Telephone, LLC ($1,500,000)

In addition to reviewing all materials related to phone bill charges, here are some tips from the FCC to battle cramming.

Ask:

  • Do I recognize the names of all the companies listed on my bill?
  • What services were provided by the listed companies?
  • Does my bill include charges for calls I did not place or services I did not authorize?
  • Are the rates and line items consistent with the information that the company quoted to me?

If you get a surprise charge, either contact the associated number on the bill or your own provider to dispute it, Genachowski said.

“In many cases, that will resolve it,” he said. “If that doesn’t work, call the FCC.”

The FCC can be reached by phone at 888-225-5322 or on the FCC’s complaints website.

4 comments

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Only criminal prosecutions of the CEOs will stop this. Heavy fines, long prison terms, and asset forfeitures. Let the CEOs see a few heads of their compatriots rolling down the aisle and the problem will soon stop.

Posted by Gaius_Baltar | Report as abusive

I’d like to know who owns the telephone companies listed above. This scam sounds an awful like the one that was publicized last year involving unauthorized credit card charges for “reward” offers tacked onto online purchases. I can’t recall the exact term for these charges but it was theft, pure and simple. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same people who ran that scheme are behind this one as well. I have to agree Gaius_Baltar. Fines don’t seem to be enough of a deterrent. Prison time may be in order. And, as everyone knows, if there’s one thing we Americans are good at, it’s imprisoning people.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

Amen, Gaius_Baltar, Amen.

Posted by minsco1 | Report as abusive

I got crammed a couple years ago. While I tried to get the charges dropped, other companies piled on to my acct. The additions were more than my original bill!
After getting this all straightened out, I ditched my landline for internet phone. Problem solved.

Posted by mr_ed | Report as abusive