How To Fight Phone Bill Cramming

ArsTechnica writer Nate Anderson was a recent “cramming” victim, and he wrote about his experience tracking down who was behind it. Cramming is a scam where third-party groups tell your phone company to bill you for “services,” services you never signed up for, and the phone company happily obliges, taking a cut of the fee. The phone company does no verification and all the scammer needs is your phone number. In Nate’s case, he was signed up for three different voicemail services and email-forwarding service, three at $14.95 per month, and one at $12.95, doubling his telephone bill. Snooping around, he found the companies behind it were ILD and ESBI, and scores of cramming complaints about these “companies” littered the internet. Luckily he was able to get refunds without difficulty (crammers often make it easy to cancel so you don’t go complaining to any law enforcement bodies) only providing just as much information as these con-artists used to flimflam him in the first place: his phone number. So how can you fight a crammer?

1. Watch your bills for suspicious charges.
2. If you see a fee for a service you never ordered, contact the “service” provider and request a refund.
3. Ask your phone company about how to remove erroneous charges.
4. File an FTC complaint.
5. After you get your money back, ask your phone company to put a block against third-party charges on your account.

Cram this: a firsthand account of my recent cramming [Ars Technica] (Thanks to John!)

(Photo: Getty)

Comments

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  1. brianala says:

    5. Use a pay-as-you-go phone service so you don’t have to deal with surprises showing up on your bill.

  2. OzoftheJungle says:

    when i worked for bellsouth, we would use these to upsell customers.

    “i can lower your bill 5 dollars a month, mr. customer AND give you more for your money by adding fastaccess dsl!”

    “really? how?”

    3 minutes later, the customer has a 32.95 + 2.97 carrier recovery fee and a 3rd party billing block. hell, if we were in a good mood we’d even reverse the ESBI charges. of course, that just meant that ESBI could bill them directly… but they rarely did and when they did it would take months.

  3. UnicornMaster says:

    People still use landlines?

  4. bzymom says:

    I have had a company do this with my cell phone twice. I finally had a block put on these type of charges. I also don’t give out my phone number.

  5. Is this scam unique to the United States, or can it happen in other countries like Canada and the UK?

  6. mmstk101 says:

    6. Closely monitor your monthly bills to ensure all charges are valid

  7. slim150 says:

    wow… if you had a grudge against someone or wanted revenge you could really stick it to them by filling out one of these forms with their number.

  8. davebg5 says:

    I used to work for a company that did this. In fact, one of the services that the author was billed for was one that the company that I worked for offered.

    All I can say is that you have no idea…

    …no idea how shady…

    …no idea how far they will go to under-report complaints…

    …no idea how low the usage rate of these services are (single digits = people have no idea they’re signed up for the service)…

    …no idea how much $$$ the owners were bringing in on these products…

  9. mdoidaho says:

    In Idaho the State Public Utilities Commission has no regulatory authority to require Qwest, the state’s largest phone company, to offer a global block on companies that CRAM. Qwest will only offer a company-by-company block which is useless as the scam artists simply change the name of the billing source. Qwest brushed me off when I requested the global block on May 29, 2008.

  10. I had always heard of this called “slamming” instead of “cramming”

    Either way, sounds uncomfortable and you might need one of those donut cushions afterwards.

  11. EricaKane says:

    Slamming is when they change your entire phone service over to another provider, I think. Cramming is something different.

  12. BearTack says:

    I am surprised that this intentional fraudulent billing doesn’t qualify as postal and/or wire fraud. A state Attorney General should have enough complaints to make it stick, and the fines should make it economically feasible.

  13. nightsky says:

    @mmstk101: Wasn’t that number 1?

  14. DeliBoy says:

    I just got off the phone with my carrier, T-Mobile, and they say that they can’t preemptively block third-party charges. Kinda sucks!

  15. scoobydoo says:

    It is fucking unbelievable that AT&T pretend they can’t do anything here.

    How messed up is it when your phone company gladly bills you for something they can’t even prove you signed up for…

  16. vdragonmpc says:

    I just got hit with this. I had to call Verizon about it to find out why the block I had put on didnt work (I even have a password on the account) They added yet some new block. This was after 30 minutes of phone tree navigation and hold time.

    The company was biller was IDL and the ‘service’ was a site called ‘need the info . com’. They claimed that my wife signed up for the service and she agreed to the terms and that they could send me a copy of the we applet she signed. I had the fun of telling them “nice try we have a much different email domain for family mail and THATS not it. Sorry but guessing email accounts because we have verizon DSL doesnt make you legit”. They are supposedly putting on a credit and I have had Verizon reverse the 20.95 charge for what basically is a ‘switchboard’ web page.

    Whats nice is the ‘billing lady’ kept telling me that we recieved a confirmation email and that the form was filled out in April. Sadly I run an SBS server with exchange. I check all the incoming email to both the master verizon account and the domain that hosts our email. There was no emails from ‘need the info’ or anything else in her name that mentioned ‘confirmation’.

    This is the second time I have been hit Earlier this year our number was popped for some voicemail service that we supposedly signed up for. I found out where that came from… She had signed up on a coupon site and they stole her info. Sweet deal to save money. Again no emails or anything on the site about a ‘voicemail service’…

  17. Nogard13 says:

    Why do people still use landlines from regular companies? A cell phone (or worse case, Vonage) is all you need.

  18. brianala says:

    @Nogard13: Ditto. Between my prepaid cell phone and Skype, my cost for calling has dropped to around $30 a month.

  19. Buran says:

    @Nogard13: In my parents’ case, they’re slow at times to adapt to new technologies (not counting computers for Dad; he’s actually somewhat good about that). I did get them on prepaids and they FINALLY figured out that, since they barely use their phones, they’d save money if they cancelled their landline long distance and used the cells instead with the tons of minutes they never use (since the phones are for emergencies/”where are you” meetup calls only, for them).

  20. outofoffice says:

    AT&T does not offer the ability to block third billing, simple as that. Third party billing is a situation that traces back to telecommunications deregulation, and for some reason has gotten worse (increased complaints) over the past year.

    When these types of charges occur, in the case of AT&T at least, demand to have the disputed charges “recoursed” back to to the billing carrier. Do not try to dispute the charges directly with your carrier, let them send them back to the company that crammed you and chances are 99% that the billing carrier will not try to rebill you directly.

  21. irish_hoya says:

    @Nogard13: Unless you want to set up your TiVo for the first time…

  22. tkerugger says:

    @Nogard13: I still have a landline and plan on keeping it. Why? I really don’t want to get a ton of calls on my cell from telemarketers, my dog groomer, my vet, the bicycle repair shop, the video store telling me I have a late movie, etc. while I’m at work. Having a landline to dump all of those calls to is, for me, preferable to having my Treo vibrate in my pocket all day.

    Plus, its a co-op, so I get a dividend based on my usage, and the services are cheap…like $3/mo for caller id, etc…

    *plink, plink* $.02

  23. dragonfire81 says:

    @davebg5: I actually do know how shady, I spent 12 months as a Sprint csr and I got usually 5-10 calls a DAY for people wondering what these things were, and not one of them had apparently signed up for them.

    Part of the problem is many of these services masquerade as “Free” services, when the fine print says its actually “$9.95 a month for unlimited access” not outright Free.

    I HATE THESE SERVICES!!

    Fortunately most cell providers do have the means to block them for you.

  24. BlackFlag55 says:

    Hey .. cram this!

  25. bzymom says:

    My cell phone got hit with this two different times. Some company providing texting service. I now check my bill every month. Luckily ATT removed the charges with no problems. Asked them to block all the charges and did not want Texting at all on the phones.

  26. egosub2 says:

    @Nogard13: FAX line is my explanation, although I keep only the cheapest Vonage plan, so I dare anyone to try to cram me.

  27. Nytmare says:

    @Nogard13: Article says, in the first sentence, that it’s a phone/internet account. Internet access is usually wired. The advantages should be obvious.

  28. kbarrett says:

    Local land line + Farm Bureau long distance service.

    Join your state Farm Bureau for a few dollars a year, and get long distance service for just the long distance rates.

    You don’t have to live on a farm to join.

    If some scammer dumps crap on the phone number, they simply reverse it immediately, without any arguments.

  29. MillicentNekrologist says:

    I just got off the phone with AT&T and they provided what they call a
    ‘services purchase’ block … said it will require anyone trying to
    add ringtones, multimedia, etc to my acct to use the PIN number they
    randomly generated. I haven’t been hit so far, and this is being done
    as a pre-emptive strike to keep it that way. WHO still uses land lines?

    Humanity does not care for freedom. The mass of the people realize
    they are not up to it: what they want is being fed, led, amused, and
    above everything, drilled. But they do care for the phrase.
    – Schumpeter

  30. Limekiller says:

    Since I don’t know anyone without a landline who isn’t a college student, can somebody who advocates ditching them fill me in on something? And I’m being serious, I don’t get how life without a landline would work for someone whose home address is stable.

    Do you keep your cellphone in your pocket 24/7? When I get home, my cellphone goes into a charger in my laundry area and doesn’t come back out until the next morning as I leave the house. If somebody calls me on it, I wouldn’t hear it ring and wouldn’t see the call until the next day. Even if I put it somewhere else in the house, I’d always have to run to it when it rang. With a landline, I’ve got a phone in nearly every room. And what about broadband? Cable broadband costs 3 times DSL in my area.

  31. PølάrβǽЯ says:

    @irish_hoya: All new Tivos have broadband connectivity.

  32. Novaload says:

    IDL got us, too. They were quick to start removing the charges and Embarq said they blocked it for future incidents–but they were holding us responsible for the charge they had added, unrequested, to the bill. I am sure they must get a piece of the action. They told us they couldn’t remove anything the customer may have added…yeah. Right.

  33. czetie says:

    @scoobydoo: Don’t blame AT&T, blame Congress and the FCC. In the name of opening up the Telco marketplace, they mandated that the telcos *must* provide billing for any third-party with a reasonable claim that you signed up for the service. They *thought* they were ensuring that the Telcos couldn’t uncompetitively exclude third party alternatives for voicemail, directory services, etc., rather than opening up a Pandora’s Box of liars, cheats and petty thieves. (I learned this the hard way when some sleazebags in Florida swore blind that a non-existent person had authorized charges).

    The law of Unintended Consequences strikes again…

  34. czetie says:

    @Novaload: I had a similar conversation with Verizon until I told them “You can do whatever you want, I can only tell you I’m not paying it.” At that point, miraculously, it suddenly became possible to remove it. Amazing.

  35. theczardictates says:

    @Novaload: Verizon told me the same thing until I said “I don’t care what your problem is, I’m not paying the charge.” At that point, it miraculously did become possible to remove the charge. Amazing.

  36. redwarrior says:

    I don’t have a landline, but then both my husband and I are IT geeks tethered to blackberries 24/7, so yes, we do carry them with us 24/7. (When I’m on call, I sleep with it under my pillow, even.) It just didn’t make sense to us to pay for a phone at home when we live with phones attached to ourselves already.

  37. Boo says:

    It does happen in Canada as well. My sister had a terrible experience with Telus where they refused to block those numbers saying she had signed up for them. After about 6 months of her complaining they admitted that they had given her a recycled number and it was likely that the past owner had signed up for the charges. The only thing Telus would do to stop the calls was to cancel her text messaging completely.

  38. Osi says:

    I dont know about you people in the southern states (aka, states south of Alaska), but here in Alaska, you need a land line to have internet … … you heard of DSL right? There’s three choices of internet here in town .. DSL, Wi-Fi, and Cable.

    Unfortunately Wi-Fi is provided by AT&T, and nobody in their right mind subscribes to internet from a criminal organization. Cable is provided by GCI, but that company can only provide up to 1Mb of service while charging you for 10Mb pipe. Notice the little “b”. They advertise megabyte but they provide megabit service …

    And last is the DSL by ACS. They people provide 3Mb speeds (advertised as MB) for the price of 20MB and higher lines of down south …

  39. katra says:

    @Limekiller: My household has gone without a landline for two or three years now. Typically, members of my family keep their cell phones charging in their bedrooms. We take them with us when we leave the house, of course, but I don’t see the need to carry them around while at home.

    I guess it depends on your phone habits now. We never rushed to answer the landline phone every time it rang, so we don’t feel the need to constantly answer our cells either.

    So far the only difference we’ve noticed is we pay one less bill and receive zero telemarketer calls.

  40. not2techy says:

    @EricaKane

    You’re right. “Slamming” is an unauthorized switch from one carrier to another (usually long distance land-line). “Cramming” is adding unauthorized services to an existing account.

    My best advice is to write one good letter and send it to the following:

    1) The president of your carrier.
    2) The Federal Communications Commission.
    3) Your state’s Public Utilities/Public Service Commission.
    4) Your state’s attorney general’s office.

    FTC’s not bad either (by all means shoot them a copy as well), but I like the listed choices better for the following reasons:

    1) Although the company president may never read the letter, it will go to a specially designated staff for expedited handling.

    2) The FCC is a bit slow, but if it racks up enough complaints for a particular carrier, they can drag the company’s lawyers into a “show cause” hearing and levy painful fines.

    3) The PUCs/PSCs vary by state, but some of them (Florida is a good example) are known to be very tough on carriers who fail to protect their consumers.

    4) The AGOs in certain states can also be tough, depending on the state.

    Scream once and copy well, and your issue will get resolved. I know. I used to work for a telecom company as one of the people who responded to the screaming.

    The Better Business Bureau doesn’t create any real pain, in my experience. But what the heck…a stamp only costs 42 cents.

  41. Stephen Colon says:

    @katra: @Limekiller: I tried going cell phone only for 2 months and it worked really well except for one thing: I couldn’t plug my fax machine into my cell phone. If there were a way to use a physical fax machine (not the eFax virtual kind) with my cell phone it would’ve worked. I just happen to work with some pretty stone-age people who don’t like to work with email attachments, so a fax machine is necessary. But I really hate paying the landline bill now that I know I could easily do without if it weren’t for the dumb fax issue.

  42. WhirlyBird says:

    Because my apartment complex won’t allow Comcast, I have no option but DSL from Verizon, so I’m stuck with a friggin’ landline I never use (except to get annoying calls from telemarketers). I’ve had several of these cramming scams in the past, and, while I have gotten them removed, Verizon flatly refuses to block third-party charges. I so hate them.

  43. groberts1980 says:

    @irish_hoya: All Tivo’s at this point have the option of connecting via landline or broadband connection. They hook right into your router.

    I haven’t had a landline in probably 7 or 8 years. DSL has reached the point where they don’t even require a landline to have DSL internet service. Used to be, you’d have to pay for a dial tone phone line to have DSL, not so anymore.

    I live in an apartment, so my cellphone is never more than a room away. If I had a house, it would be in my pocket all the time. I never get telemarketing calls, and I keep it on vibrate at work. If I don’t recognize a number, I let it go to voicemail. If they don’t leave a message, they didn’t really want to talk to me that badly anyway.

    As far as cramming is concerned, I get a text message every month from AT&T that lists the amount of my bill for that month. I can reply with something to have them automatically charge me for the full amount, but I don’t pay that way. I use the text message to know when the bill is due, and how much it is. If it’s ever more than the usual amount, I would go online to investigate the charges.

  44. juliem says:

    damn, I just got billed both from “Residential Email ($16.07)” and “Low Cost Billing ($9.06)” in this month’s landline AT&T bill. I called both companies; both claimed I’d signed up, which is absolutely not possibly true. Eventually they both promised to reverse charges. I then called AT&T, who put the amounts under dispute, so I won’t have to pay. But, they refuse to put a block on any 3rd party billing. Bastards.