Watch Out For Cramming On Your Phone Bill

Josh discovered a mysterious $13 fee on his parents’ phone bill, and as he tracked down the source of the bogus charge, he learned a lot about cramming. The FCC describes it as “the practice of placing unauthorized, misleading, or deceptive charges on your telephone bill” by third party companies, who bank on you being too confused/distracted/annoyed by your hard-to-read bill to notice.

Hello Consumerist! I’m writing in because I just had an experience with something called “cramming” and I thought your readers should be informed. I handle my parents telephone bills because of all of the shady stuff these telephone companies do. While reading this months bill I notice an extra charge placed by a company called Enhanced Services Billing Inc. (I’ll call them ESBI for short) for 13.27. I’ve had lots of trouble with telephone support in the past and I really didn’t want to call up the customer service number just yet so I started searching on the net for anything regarding this company and it’s services.

What I found disgusts me. First I stumbled across this blog “http://sharingthesecretoflife.blogspot.com/2005/11/enhanced-services-billing-inc.html“. That blog post was very informative and introduced me to the term “Cramming”. The FCC has a good description of what cramming is at this web page “http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cramming.html

“Cramming” is the practice of placing unauthorized, misleading, or deceptive charges on your telephone bill. Crammers rely on confusing telephone bills in an attempt to trick consumers into paying for services they did not authorize or receive, or that cost more than the consumer was led to believe.

ESBI was the one pushing charges onto my account for another company called Total Enhanced Services Billing Inc. Confused? Let me try and explain. ESBI is a middleman, they have contact with your local phone service provider (in our case it would be AT&T). In my case, Total Enhanced Services Billing Inc got a purchase request for whatever its service is (I think this is their service http://www.mytppv.com/) they forwarded that request to ESBI which forwarded the request to AT&T and charged it to our bill.

Cramming happens without consent from you, if your phone company gets a request to add charges to your bill from a company like “Enhanced Services Billing Inc.” then they will add the charges no problem. With such shady tactics I thought that getting the charges off of the bill might be a real hassle, but I called the number on my bill and was transfered a few times to a representative from ESBI. The woman asked for my phone number and the exact date the charges were placed on the bill, I tell her and she informs me that she is going to transfer me to the company that actually placed the charge, Total Enhanced Services. I’m transfered over and tell her about the situation, she gives me a name that the order was placed under, “Chris”. I deny that we ever ordered such a service and that I do not know anybody named Chris, she quickly offers to remove the service, credit our bill, and gives me a confirmation number.

Why would they be so quick to resolve the issue? If they resolve the issue quickly there is less of a chance that you, the consumer, would complain or write to the FCC or whoever else. Bad publicity means more people checking their bills for these phony charges which means less revenue for them. I advise everyone to check your bill and make sure everything is in order, we can’t let these sneaky snakes get away with stuff like this.

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(Photo: Getty)

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  1. JollyJumjuck says:

    Just another example of the disparity between corporations and people. Corporations freely get away doing things that people would go to jail for.

  2. sleze69 says:

    Followup questions for Total Enhanced Services would be:

    What was the exact date/time that Chris made the order?

    What is Chris’s last name?

    How was the order placed from Chris (over the phone, through the mail, internet, etc)?

    What information did Chris provide that proved to TES that he had authority to order such service? (Ask them to repeat it to you)

    Quite frankly, it should be illegal for phone companies to allow this.

  3. jomil91 says:

    ugh. I wish my overages on my cellbill where from that, that way I could take them off, not those extra minutes that I usde which led me to a $50 increase in my bill!!!! urgh!

  4. Shannon says:

    That just pisses me off. I want to pop a cap in ESBI’s ass.

  5. Hambriq says:

    Wow.

    I am going through the exact same B.S. with a company called Thumbplay on my parent’s wireless bill.

    Very few things really anger me in this world… And this is one of them.

  6. chilled says:

    Had a similar charge on my embarq bill..like the poster I dreaded calling customer service,but I did,ended up getting pissed off,then called the offending company and got it fixed.Heres the kicker..they claimed I checked off for the service on a website I visited!!The service was called Voice Mail Protection or something like that.

  7. SVreader says:

    Ugh. Disgusting. Thanks for the warning!

  8. chiieddy says:

    I do some volunteer work for a 92 year old woman who lives in a retirement assisted living facility. We’re always having to look over her bills for this kind of crap. They love to prey on the elderly.

  9. dragonfire81 says:

    This is a big problem in the cellphone industry too. I work in customer for a service for a large provider and take on average 5 calls a day in which customers allege cramming.

    The problem is we are given commissions on the things we sell and we can also be fired if we don’t sell enough stuff (even we are providing great customer service) so some less than ethical reps just add stuff to accounts without customers consent, all the while knowing they’ll likely be caught because they will never talk to that particular customer again and the next rep who will probably won’t make much effort to track down the crammer as they don’t get paid enough to care.

  10. dragonfire81 says:

    oops, that should say the cramming reps do it knowing they WON’T BE CAUGHT.

  11. Justin42 says:

    I know this isn’t quite the same thing (at all) but I was helping my parents go over some bills in the last few weeks and we discovered a monthly $11 charge from Sprint on their phone bill. They rarely ever use this line for anything but short local calls (That’s what cell phones are for!) so it warranted some investigation. Turns out at some point in time the long distance plan they were on got cancelled/changed (it used to be free to be on the plan they had for LD, and was the old 10cents/minute plan) and the plan Sprint helpfully changed them to was like $5/month, plus a $3 “single bill fee”, plus some other assorted surcharges and taxes (minimum use fees) for almost $11/month with no usage.

    So no, this wasn’t cramming in the traditional sense, and who knows if Sprint sent something to my parents, but for at least a few years they’ve been paying $11/month to Sprint for probably less than an hour TOTAL of long distance charges. (Not per month!)

    Definitely worth going over the bills. It’s not like my parents are old or senile and are getting preyed upon, I have no idea how this got overlooked for so long, but they’re glad to have it gone. (They actually just turned off long distance on that line completely)

  12. davebg5 says:

    You don’t know the half of it. I used to work for a company that did this. You know all of those banner ads that say “click here and win “? Those deals are often contingent upon you accepting (ie. paying for) certain offers. Many are subscription services for things like an 800 number/voice mail or discount shopping. When you are on these offer pages and filling out the form the user feels secure since they are not asking for a credit card. The user enters their personal information, including address, email and home phone number.

    Well, should have read the fine print because this company is likely employing something called LEC (Local Exchange Carrier) billing. That means the subscription fees will appear on your home phone bill.

    Now, these subscriptions/services must be activated via the email that they send out after submitting the form. Of course, there’s nothing to stop someone from signing anyone else up for this stuff. You can sign up a phone number in your office or the neighbor down the street who lets their dog whiz on your lawn…all you need is the home phone and the address. As long as the 3-digit exchange on the phone number and the zip code match your application will likely be accepted.

    You have no idea how many complaints this gets from people who have no idea where these charges came from. The company that I worked for had something like a 5% usage rate…in other words, people weren’t using the services they were being charged for…likely because they didn’t even know they wee signed up for said services. If anyone called to complain they’d be refunded because they don’t want you contacting the phone company. You see, the phone company keeps track of complaints (as much as they love the $, they hate the complaints.) The company that I worked for actually kept track of the complaint levels for each phone carrier. When the numbers got too high we’d just reject everyone applying from that carrier until the complaints leveled off. Then we’d re-open the floodgates. It was a giant shell game.

  13. Jeffrowe says:

    Comment on Watch Out For Cramming On Your Phone Bill I did the same thing, one day I took an extra careful look at my phonebill,
    and saw two companies charging me for extended services.

    I made a call to the numbers listed for them, and fond once had been adding
    on $14 a month for 24 months.
    The other was $16 a month for the last 11 months…

    They canceled the service immediately on my arguing with them over it, gave
    me a bogus story about signing up online, and then gave me a bogus email
    adddress on my own domain as the source of the signup… they tried to tell
    em they wouldnt refund anything, then when I pointed out that *anyone* could
    given them my email address and publicly listed phone # and they consider
    that ‘approval’… they then tried to offer me 4 months refunds. After
    reiterating that I expected nothing short of a 100% refund they had my phone
    bill credited with 100% refund (minus the tax AT&T charged me) within 8
    days…

    The company that had charged me for 2 years was even worse. They even
    admitted I was signed up by a 3rd party… my mom… she had signed me up
    via an online sweepstakes/rewards signup. I got the ‘she should have read
    the fine print’ rigamoroll – They kept haggling over how much they would
    refund me and I eventually had to download and review every phone bill (the
    one thing I like about AT&T) for the last 26 months and hand calculate how
    much they charged me the whole time.

    I wound up with over $500 credited to my phonebill. I wont be having to pay
    a phone bill for a while…
    but If AT&T bills were easier to read (they did just make changes to this) I
    would have noticed these charges much sooner.

    You can block these kind of problems by calling your phone company and
    asking for a “3RD PARTY BILLING BLOCK”
    However, this assumes you don’t use any type of 3rd party long distance, or
    extra service not provided by your phone co.
    They might try to argue, or tell you that a “SLAMMING BLOCK” is the same
    thing. It Isnt.
    This will also break any service that you might use that charges back to
    your phone bill as a 3rd party… Not sure if anyone still uses such
    services…

    -Jeffrowe

  14. johnva says:

    @dragonfire81: Yep, we had a problem where a cellphone store rep added on a text messaging plan to our account when I specifically and explicitly turned it down when they offered. Then it took me about 3 months to get it permanently off of our account, since although they kept on crediting me for it, it would just show up on the next bill. The phone reps admitted it looked like a case of the rep trying to pad his commissions fraudulently after I asked them to look over my account history and see that we do not use text messages at a rate NEAR what would make the cost of that unlimited plan justified (we would send one or two a month). But they also admitted that although they had the name of the person and that yes, it happened in a store on the day I was there, that nothing would happen to them as a result.

    If companies are going to pay on commission, they had better get serious about actually disciplining/firing their dishonest employees. My guess is that they don’t care because these dishonest employees make the company more money than they cost them.

  15. johnva says:

    @davebg5: How is that not something that should be prosecuted under RICO statutes?

  16. davebg5 says:

    @johnva: Honestly, I couldn’t say…I’m not an attorney and I was only there for eight months (once I really understood what was going on I started looking for another job.)

    I can tell you that they were very concerned about not only complaints to the phone companies, but also to any state AG’s office. I do know that the FL AG went after them at one point, but it seemed as if what they were doing was just shy of breaking the law.

    They were raking it in hand over fist on these subscription products. I know because I processed the billing files every week. We’re talking SEVEN FIGURES PER WEEK for products that cost them virtually nothing.

  17. tmlfan81 says:

    Verizon’s “feature” to block premium text messaging prevents you from getting signed up for ringtone services that cost $9.99 a month. It inadvertantly blocks services like YouMail from giving you updates on new voicemails – services like Jott, Remember the Milk, and Google work just fine though.

    I had a ringtone service bill me the $9.99 for a month when I didn’t even try the service. Verizon couldn’t credit the charge but they directed me to the company that billed me. I confirmed cancellation of the service since the addition was not authorized, and I received a credit within 10 working days.

    I pay close attention to my wirless bill – especially the data portion since I rarely [read: never] go over package minutes in a given month.

  18. Angryrider says:

    Man, it’s even more expensive to own a phone!
    Why does it cost $25 to have a dial tone with technology these days?

  19. sixseeds says:

    If the phone company will do it (AT&T did it for me here in IL) turn off 3rd-party billing to your parents’ account.

  20. coan_net says:

    At least $13+ is easy to notice. I got charged an extra $0.48 on my last phone bill, and honestly – it was not worth my time to fight.

    … until yesterday when I had the day off work, nothing better to do, so I did call and after 45+ minutes of the phone got the $0.48 credit.

  21. Jim says:

    This happens every other year or so on our business line. We’ll get a phone call asking for “a person authorized to make decisions”, or sometimes a call to confirm our address and contact information. Usually, any of these are an automatic hangup, but if someone we haven’t warned yet happens to get the call, we’ll start noticing oddities on our phone bills.

    So, hang up on these calls when you’re at work too.

  22. fscrp says:

    My experience sounds almost exactly the same as Josh.

    The first thing I did when I got hit with this charge last year was call my phone company and file a dispute; they immediately credited me for the amount. I also dreaded calling the number listed, but they were quick to cancel the “service”.

    I called my phone company (Frontier) again to block 3rd party billing, but they insisted that it would cost me $4.95 a month! I am no longer a customer and my new provider does not charge a penny for the protection.

  23. calvinneal says:

    Save the hassle, call ATT directly. They will erase the charges. it is federal law that ATT, Verizon and other landline companies cannot punish you for non payment of these bogus bills. Whatever they tell you, they can and do wipe these charges every day.

  24. Gorky says:

    This is not the phone companies fault anymore than it would be Whole Foods fault for a charge on your Visa bill that someone else charged to it. The company to pissed off at here is the third party company. They are the scum, not the phone company who is simply passing on a charge that they are under the assumption it was authorized

  25. consumerd says:

    I had this happen to me once, it’s quite interesting how supposedly my wife ordered a enhanced service but she don’t know anything about it.

    Yea right guys, let’s try this one more time.

  26. dragonfire81 says:

    In my center, the turnover is so high we pretty much have to take who we can get, we don’t have to pass any ethics exam and it seems the only real requirements were a high school diploma and the ability to speak and read english passably.

    I’m one likely one of the few college graduates (outside of the top managers) who has ever worked there. Believe me, it’s amazing how many people there don’t give a crap about their jobs. The problem said attitude is justified because management will usually turn the other way if you are willing to show up and take calls 8 hours a day. It’s cheaper to hold on to a trained worker who doesn’t give a crap than train someone else.

  27. XJSGUY says:

    I have my business phone with one of bush’s favortite spies~~verizon.
    My business cellphone is with his other favorite spy~~AT&T.
    Verizon charges me to make up $10 if I don’t use enough long distance to make the minimum of $10.
    This is extorting for services not used.

    I’m going to see whether it would be cheaper for me to use my cellphone for all my LD calls and delete it from verizon.
    BTW-Do you know that you are also charged tax on tax on your phone bill?

  28. Photochick57 says:

    As always you guys saved me some money. For the past few months my Cell bill has been higher than normal. I thought maybe since I was texting my daughter that was raising the rates. I had not texted ever in the past so didn’t pay too much attention thinking I had just better cut back. When I read this I decided to look at my phone bill. and voila! there’s a charge from ThumbPlay. About 4 months ago I downloaded a ring tone. they have been charging me 9.99 for four months!

    Why can the phone company let ANYONE put charges on my bill? I bet they get a cut.

  29. i2bnscrewed says:

    I downloaded my AT&T bill; discovered two unauthorized charges:
    SBO-ONLINE.ORG SURVIVAL KIT MTHLY FEE $29.95 and ORBIT TELECOM VMAIL MTHLY FEE $14.95
    both posted 02-14. There is a heading, ESBI, with a toll free number, which I called.

    After giving my telephone account number, I asked when and in whose name the charges had been made. The CSR told me that I had applied by FULL NAME for the accounts on 02-08-2008, that I would have to contact each provider in regard to each account, and was given toll free numbers. I was also told that I would be liable for the charges to my account.

    It is obvious that someone got my name as Corporation President of my small business and crammed the charges to my AT&T account.

    I called AT&T Billing Information, got an explanation of how the charges were made, requested and got information as to how to apply for credit — if the “provider” credited my account — within 2-3 billing cycles (FTC rules allow that period for complaint verification to prevent fraud), then had a “Cramming Blocker” put on my account. The AT&T CSR then flagged the ESBI portion of my account so that that unpaid balance would be carried forward for up to 90 days and not be treated as delinquent.

    I called SBO (877-726-4222), verified my AT&T account (I had the CSR read my billing address to me rather than giving it to the CSR), and requested account closure. I was told that the closure would be effective in 1-2 billing cycles. I requested that my account be credited the amount of $29.95 and told that it would be done in the same period. I then had to give my FAX number and was given a Cancellation Number.

    I then called ORBIT (800-263-0206), verified my account as before and was told that my account with them would be closed in 5-7 working days. I asked for the $14.95 to be credited to my AT&T account and was told that it would take 1-2 billing cycles and that if any further charges were made before then, I would again have to contact ORBIT for credit. I asked if a flag could be placed to preclude any further charges and was told IMMEDIATELY that it was done, but to “keep an eye on my AT&T bill for any further charges from ORBIT.” I HAD TO ASK FOR A CANCELLATION CONFIRMATION NUMBER; I got it and was told that it would be confirmed via email.

    I learned from this adventure that:

    1) It is incumbent upon each consumer to be aware of ALL bill charges since AT&T and other companies, including credit card and finance companies, have no way to identify the sources of crammed charges. We must call each about the “crammed” account and have the situatioin remidied.

    2) Safeguard each and every account by constant vigilance, if possible putting “Cramming Blockers” in place on each one.

    3) If one is “public”; ie: in business, blogging, YOUtube, etc., expect that some foul, conniving thief will try to take your money any way possible……It’s an unfortunate fact of our degenerating society.

  30. Sylvia Fife says:

    This sucks I just got charge 14.95 by those people they need to be closed down!

  31. Steve Carey says:

    Why is Enhanced Services Billing Inc. scamming/stealing money from me through my phone company?

    I just found out that I am getting charge $14.95 for Enhanced Services Billing Inc.

    I have never heard of them before.

    AND

    I didn’t ORDER it either.

    Enhanced Services Billing Inc. is uncalled for everyone.

    I do not need that stupid voicemaill service.

    I am really pist off!

    Enhanced Services Billing Inc., Please be kind enough to refund the money you stole from me or else!!!!

  32. IraAntelope says:

    I heard that ATT got called with a $10 per month scam like this and had to pay a large fine. Mobbily or something like that. They still made money on it. Not sure if anyone got their money back. There oughta be a law.