'I Was Scammed by Phone Crammers': Readers' True Stories

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Phone crammingWhile it's always fun to demonize billion-dollar con artists like Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford, the most successful scammers are often the ones who manage to stay beneath the radar. This is certainly the case with phone crammers: low-level swindlers who sneak their charges onto phone bills to cheat the unwary. The practice, which began almost thirty years ago, has become a quasi-legal multibillion-dollar business that victimizes millions of American families.

To get a better feel for this problem, we asked our DailyFinance readers to share their cramming stories. In response, they sent in tales of suspiciously large phone bills, and hours spent poring over confusing and misleading charges. They wrote about appeals to phone companies, spurious arguments from crammers, and the misery of fighting a scam that is, on paper at least, semi-legal. Perhaps most importantly, they shared the hard-earned lessons that they've learned about fighting scammers ... and the phone companies that all too often shield them.

Uncovering a Scam

Crammed charges often hide in plain sight. Camouflaged with bland, official-sounding names, they are designed to be overlooked by phone customers who simply want to pay their bills and move on. One reader, "Elizabeth," noted that her mystery cram was titled "long distance access charge" -- a seemingly-legitimate line-item on a crowded bill. Another, "Sandi," found that she was being charged $19.95 for "Distribution Services," and a further $61.15 for "General Services." In some cases, the crammers don't even bother to come up with a name for their charges: One reader, "J.P.," noticed that he was being charged $100 for a service referred to only as "9999."

Similarly, the companies that are actually doing the charging can also seem innocuous. "Wilfred," for example, received unauthorized charges from "USBI" for several years, while "Cklehr9387" was scammed by "Solo Communications," which used "Total Enhanced Services Billing Inc." to place the charge on his phone bill.

Because crammed charges are so easy to overlook on crowded phone bills, many readers paid the fraudulent fees for months -- or even years -- before noticing them. After Elizabeth discovered that her "long distance access charge" wasn't legitimate, she looked back and found that it had been showing up on her bills for several months. Similarly, Wilfrid notes that "USBI" has been cramming his bill since 2000, scamming him out of an estimated $3,000.

'Signing Up' for Services

According to FCC rules, phone customers have to agree to any charges that are crammed onto their bill. In reality, however, many crammers automatically sign up customers or obtain their consent under false pretenses. What happened to "Pam" is typical for this sort of scam. Receiving a call from an "advertising" firm, she started to hang up, but changed her mind:
"What stopped me was ... I thought I heard them say something to the effect that if you hung up you were agreeing to something. They were talking really fast and I was really busy ... finally I heard something telling me to press a number if -- not really coming straight out and saying that it's to refuse the offer but close enough for me. So, I pressed the number and the rambling started again so I hung up and went on to work and never gave it another thought."

A month later, Pam's phone bill came...with an unexplained $50 charge attached to it. "Rich" had a similar problem: He and his wife found themselves with an unexplained $9.99 charge attached to their Sprint (S) Cell bill. When he called to complain, Sprint told him that his wife had received a message "with a 5-digit phone number... known in the industry as a short code. She was supposed to open it and reply to opt out or she was charged." Luckily, Sprint agreed to drop the charges and Rich has since had a short-code block placed on his account.

Sprint isn't the only phone company that crams charges onto phone bills. "Gloria" noticed that AT&T (T), her regional service provider, had begun placing a monthly $4.57 charge on her bill. When her husband called the phone company, they discovered that AT&T had signed them up for some services without their consent:
"It seems that several months ago, they mailed me a letter telling me I had to pick a long distance carrier or they would assign AT&T and bill me. Obviously, I never got/read the mail. So, for the past two months, we have been billed for long-distance service that we don't use."

Like Rich, Gloria and her husband were able to get the charges taken off their bill.

Fighting the Scammers ... and the Phone Companies

When it comes to dealing with the phone company, Gloria's experience is fairly common. In fact, most readers found that the best way to deal with their cramming problem was by going directly to their local service provider. For example, "Pam" was able to get the phone company to reverse her charges, and "JP" convinced Verizon (VZ) to remove crammed charges from his bill.

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But the phone companies often only fix part of the problem: After she discovered unauthorized long distance charges on her phone, "Elizabeth" contacted AT&T, her provider. While they agreed to refund three months worth of charges, they were less helpful when it came to keeping additional crammed fees off her bill: "They continued to charge me access fees every month, for months on end. Every few months I would call and complain ... finally after about 6 months the charges were stopped."

"Wilfred" had a similar problem. When he realized that a third-party cramming company, "USBI," had been placing charges on his bill, he contacted Verizon, his local carrier. They agreed to refund one year worth of crammed fees, but told him that he would have to dispute any earlier fees with USBI.

In fact, extended battles with third-party crammers seem to be a fairly common experience for phone scam victims. Even after she received her refund, "Pam" continues to be harassed by the company that crammed charges on her bill. As she notes, "I am still getting phone calls and emails (don't know how they got my email) about their wonderful advertising service."

Some customers have even become so fed up that they've permanently changed their phone service. After a horrific fight with AT&T, "Mbayawatu" got rid of his land line: "[I] now use what they call a dry loop for DSL only." While this has helped him eliminate his problem with crammed charges, it hasn't saved him much money: "I pay more for the DSL ... actually about the same as I did when I got hit with the 3rd party charges."

As some readers noted, cramming victims can also contact the FCC, which can help them deal with both the scammers and their phone service providers. For that matter, anyone who is concerned about cramming should also look into the commission's proposed rule changes. As part of the process, the commission is soliciting comments from the public. If you've had problems with crammers, let the FCC know.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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