'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.

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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18 Comments

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geraldjac

For N68Firebird. Fyi, T-Mobile is also a bunch of crooks. Fyi, Don't bring you cell phone out of the country because what they are doing is charging you for calls THEY originate to your phone while you are roaming. EVEN IF YOU DO NOT ANSWER YOUR phone you are still charged for ROAMING at $1.49 per minute. I took this issue up with them twice the first time they removed the charges saying I shouldn't have been charged. Then my second trip out of the country I noticed 5 calls ALL ORIGINATING FROM T-MOBILE. I called them once again and this time they said the calls were VALID and I should pay the bill. I took this issue up with an attorney who's very aware of what they are doing but indicated it will take an act of congress to get them to stop. They are cheating millions of customers and while making millions of dollars at our expense. To add insult to injury, I was told in order to avoid these charges to buy an International calling card or a SIM card. Nice way to go T-Mobile perhaps this is one of the reasons your losing thousands of customers as we speak.

September 06 2011 at 1:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jetncat

Put a cramming block on you phone by calling your telephone provider then hang up on all of them as soon as they say "I am from......." CLICK!

September 06 2011 at 11:48 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
g-locker62_p

Trust no one and give out NO information ... period. If it seems too good to be true, it is. You're always money ahead to always deal with reputable vendors, buy with a credit card and know how to protest bogus charges. And yeah, you have to actually read your bills and not do auto payments. Simple.

September 05 2011 at 4:47 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
N68Firebird

Years ago, I had Sprint. I remember that they overcharged me $50 over the period of a few months, and refused to take it off the bill. I argued with them, and they still refused. So, I just dumped them like the trash they are. I never paid that bill, this was over 7 years ago, and now it's completely off my credit report. FU, Sprint!

I've had T-Mobil now for years and haven't had any trouble with them.

September 05 2011 at 12:32 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Gloria

These stupid elected officials only think about themselves and their kickbacks for letting some of these charges go through on utilities and phones etc...We pay too many taxes...... Gloria(age 82)

September 05 2011 at 12:28 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
stealcity

So you got ripped off by company that I am paid to watch? Sit down ,hush-, can't you see I'm trying to get re-elected? I may or may not get around to it someday .P.S. VOTE FOR ME.

September 05 2011 at 11:52 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
jrexmarda

Take a minute and look over your statement every month. If there is a charge on it you don't understand, call your provider and ask what it is, If it is something that isn't necessary, or something you don't want, ask them to remove the charge. What's so difficult about that? Take care of your own stuff. These criminals count on people being oblivious about their finances, don't give them the satisfaction or another dime of your money. That ad on TV asks, "Have you looked at your phone bill lately?" Who doesn't look at their phone bill? Sheesh!

September 05 2011 at 11:04 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jrexmarda's comment
rebornat22

I agree with you. That is how I caught my crammed charges from Enhanced Billing Services at AT&T. They charged me $15.95. When I called AT&T to have this charge removed I did not receive the simple fix you speak of. Instead, I was told there was nothing they could do about it. Because, it was a third party biller. I asked why they would allow charges that I did not authorize, and they said it is a third party biller and that I had to have agreed to this service by some website or phone solicitation. I told them I did not. They said they could remove the charges, but if they did that without my taking it up with the third party biller, it would be looked upon as an acceptance of the services; and they would continue charging me.

So, I contacted the third party biller and was given my email address. They said I had agreed to this service. I knew this was a lie because the service was not something a I needed. Which was supposedly an unlimited long-distance service. I knew I did not authorize it because I have a cell phone that get me FREE long-distance, so I would never have signed up for this. This is nothing more than a scam that is allowed by the FCC itself. They allow third party billing! The phone companies, cell phone companies, and cable companies all KNOW that this is going on, but they do nothing because it is not illegal here in the good old United States of America. But, it IS illegal in Canada!

People are being read back their email addresses as "proof" to you that you signed up for the service. When in fact many people have been read back email addresses that aren't even theirs! When you go to those websites for employment is where they are getting so many people. Because, those search engines for jobs have already sold your email address. That is why you get those screens with a database already filled in with your information from your job profile. You have to click no to proceed to Career builder or Monster. It's the same with Publisher's Clearing House or Magazine subscriptions or newsletters, or when you enter information to receive a free trial for something.

They make the instructions confusing so you'll unknowingly agree to something by doing what you'd "think" was what you should do, like hanging up, or not saying you don't want a subscription. You have to do more than just look at your bill and complain. Some of these people have had charges removed. But, many have to deal directly with that third party biller, like I had to do. They willingly agreed to take the charges off. Because, I was threatening a class action lawsuit. AT&T also agreed to put the third party billing block on my phone. Because, I threatened to cancel my service if they had not done it FOR FREE! Because, many will charge a fee for this. I just learned about the short code being another way they scam. I couldn't believe the amount of people who had been charged for years and didn't notice. I pay attention to my bill EVERY MONTH! I can't afford not to

September 05 2011 at 11:54 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rebornat22's comment
Setanta

gmail tried to pull that bs in here,same thing with an "alternate email" (my own account) and somehow it was attatched to the phone bill...and that 3rd party nonsense the same----wait a minute....you're charging ME and then you're tellin ME that this 3rd party cannot get removed from the BILL ? who's printing these bleeeedin bills and who's SUBMITTING THE CHARGES ON THIS "BILL ? you can't deduct THIS but YOU ADDED IT ON ??? told them to watch me deduct it .....and of course that charge remained and continued to grow and gmail claimed i signed on for an account and i refused to pay it....collections etc etc and finally they gave up.--again and again--ALL those consumer agencies do nothing,they want you to fill out pages of bs and still this garbage goes on. DON'T PAY.

September 05 2011 at 10:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down
starwiz221

Here's someone worse than Madoff. Read then forward this link to everyone you know, so they don't get scammed: http://texsquixtarblog.blogspot.com/2009/04/who-is-worse-bernie-madoff-or-rich.html

September 05 2011 at 10:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
pete

This leads directly to the U.S. government and it's addiction to taxing everything and anything. There as at least a dozen taxes, fees, surcharges, connection fees, life line charges, and others added to my phone, cable, water, electricity, gas, and every other utility and service bill we get each month. Who of us can understand any of them, or wants to pay them?

Do away with the IRS, institute a national sales tax with a 5% cap, each state cap it's sales tax at 3%, each county, municipality, city, is capped at 1% (only one tax for area, not one tax for each of those), and do away with all the other BS. Last year out of an income of just shy of $58,000 I paid almost 51% to one government office or another it all those fees.

If God only asks for 10% tribute, why do we let government take so much more?

September 05 2011 at 10:44 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to pete's comment
rebornat22

That's true, Pete! I couldn't agree more. I was told the reason for all of those extra charges was because I had not agreed to "bundle" my services. And, if I had, I would not get those charges. At least when it came to phone, cable, and cell phone bills. Those are just nickle and dime fees and charges to rip us off. I don't understand why we get charged from the gas company, then a customer service fee, and then the electric and gas company? Why are we paying for a customer service charge? Isn't that what their wages are for?! And, what if you don't even use their customer service because you're paying your bill online and haven't had any issues where you needed to contact customer service? How do the utility companies get to ask for an increases in charges in what appears to be every 4 months? It's the same with the cable companies, gas companies, and phone companies. Gas prices are going up.

Gasoline prices are going up. Insurances of all kinds are going up, whether you've used them or had no accidents ever. Comcast goes up and their signals get weaker and they aren't offering anything new. Cell phone plans are organized to have you paying a lot of unlimited plans. They MAKE you get rid of the cheaper plans for those who don't need data plans and smart phones, by discontinuing those plans the minute you change to a new phone, which all seem to now be smart phones! Food prices are increasing. Rent increases, yet their are no improvements, it's just because they want to get more money out of you, while you suffer the inconvenience of neighbors. Your paycheck doesn't increase.

Yet, you pay taxes on it, you have social security and entitlement programs taking even more from your paycheck. And, by the time you need any of those things it will not be there for you, and you actually worked all of your life and paid into it! Then, you get taxed again on everything else you actually are spending your paycheck to get all over again! Some states like mine you pay ad valorem taxes when you get your license tags every year. They call it a "luxury" tax. Why? The car I bought has already been taxed!
We work and pay taxes only to get a fraction of the taxes back. Yet, the roads and neighborhoods look like hell.

So, why not pay us a fraction of our insurance money back when we don't use them at all for years. I haven't used my car insurance for anything for over 10 years. No accident, nothing. Do you know what that adds up to? $7000.00! It's the same with healthcare and dental. I think when you pay a premium for healthcare, everything should be paid at 100% for people who don't need to use it. The dental insurance pays 80% unless it's your molars that need work. Then, it's only 60%, why? Because, those are your chewing teeth that will need the most work. You pay for dental insurance only to have to pay $6000 (your portion) after getting a root canal done, and that's just one tooth! This government is geared towards ripping people off in every

September 05 2011 at 12:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rebornat22's comment
Setanta

LOL---we love con_ed's delivery fees. delivery ? gas lines/pipes/mains were installed waaaaay back when--what delivery ?==as for this health insurance ? you fully illustrated HOW pay as you go works and works fine versus thousands for services never used====

September 05 2011 at 10:59 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down
Setanta

IF you didn't use the services you never pay for them---case closed. YOU WILL contact the companieS and poitel inform them and the usual bs fromm them IS to pay their amount ...and they will decide blah blah bh--NO.. go as high up in the company as you have to --write everything down neatly on the bill--names dates times outcome of your conversation etc. i remember only too well getting an additional five hundred plus on a phonr bill for a long distance carrier...problem is we don't have one inspite of their bs THAT YOU MUST -- ?? __then their rep said they will adjust this bill ???? yeah. Latest scam is a collections agency going around claiming you owe money for fees not covered by your student loan---i got one and the loan was fully paid off back in 2003 and i'm calling them back tomorrow as they never responded to a registered/return receipt demand for all loan info ad if they are licensed to collect in my state...NEVER PAY FOR WHAT YOU DONT OWE.

September 05 2011 at 9:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply