There’s always more to discover with an AARP membership! Browse our member benefits.
by Ron Burley, AARP The Magazine, May/June 2010 issue
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).
Please leave your comment below.
You must be logged in to leave a comment.
Members can take a free confidential hearing test by phone.
Exclusive program for members from The Hartford.
25% off the first healthy meal delivery of $99+.
AARP members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.
You are leaving AARP.org and going to the website of our trusted provider. The provider’s terms, conditions and policies apply. Please return to AARP.org to learn more about other benefits.
Your email address is now confirmed.
Manage your email preferences and tell us which topics interest you so that we can prioritize the information you receive.
Explore all that AARP has to offer.
In the next 24 hours, you will receive an email to confirm your subscription to receive emails
related to AARP volunteering. Once you confirm that subscription, you will regularly
receive communications related to AARP volunteering. In the meantime, please feel free
to search for ways to make a difference in your community at