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Well, I'll Be Crammed

Phony charges in your phone bill? It's called cramming. Here's how to fight back.

The Company: AT&T


The Complaint: This $16 charge is bogus

The Result: One down, thousands to go

Raffaella Martinelli of Arlington Heights, Illinois, was surprised to see a charge of $16.07 on her AT&T telephone bill for music downloading and answering services. When she told AT&T she had never ordered those, AT&T told her to contact Enhanced Services Billing Inc. (ESBI), the company that posted the charge. ESBI, however, refused to cancel it. The next month another $16.07 appeared on her bill. That's when she wrote to me.

Mandated in the 1984 breakup of Ma Bell, third-party billing was intended to minimize the number of phone bills—local, long distance, 900 number—landing in your mailbox. Decades later, everything from ring tones to charitable contributions to online-gambling debts may show up on your bill, funneled through clearinghouses such as ESBI. Your telephone number has become a charge account—but absent the security of a password, PIN, or signature, as you have with a credit or debit card.

The term for bogus charges stuffed into a phone bill is cramming. ESBI's parent, BSG, has twice been sued for the practice, paying $1.9 million in a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in 2008. Lois Greisman, who helps direct cramming investigations for the FTC, still isn't confident about ESBI's good intentions. "We've seen a lot of dirty vendors, and questionable practices by billing aggregators, including ESBI," she says. "That's why they are under order [to cease cramming]."

After I intervened, AT&T erased the $32.14 on Raffaella Martinelli's account. Yet it bothers me that the average cramming victim can't count on AT&T's help. The company recently decided to require independent audits of billing practices used by outfits such as ESBI, but it has no plans to verify third-party transactions that appear on its bills, and probably won't unless compelled.

That could happen. Last fall the FTC recommended five policy changes that it said could eliminate cramming—among them, a requirement that phone companies address cramming complaints by consumers.

Until such regulations are approved, your best protection against cramming is to request a "third-party block" (see box at right). If you're a victim of cramming, file a complaint with the FTC. Call 877-382-4357 or go to ftccomplaintassistant.gov.

Ron Burley is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For (Ten Speed Press, 2006). 

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