The Federal Trade Commission has issued a consumer fact sheet on phone bill "cramming:" unexplained charges on your phone bill for services you never ordered, authorized, received or used.
It may be a one-time charge for entertainment services, or monthly recurring charges crammed onto the bill. Recurring charges typically fall into two categories: club memberships, such as psychic clubs, personal clubs or travel clubs; and telecommunications products or service programs, such as voice mail, paging and calling cards, the FTC stated.
The schemes. Most cramming schemes occur through the use of an 800 number, while others are initiated by a contest or sweepstakes. "They are all deceptive, and you should dispute the charges," the guide recommends.
The FTC fact sheet lists a number of common methods for crooks to get your phone number and cram charges onto your bill:
?800 number calls. You call an 800 number advertised as a free date line, psychic line or other adult entertainment service. A recording prompts you to give your name and to say, "I want the service," or some similar phrase, to get the advertised free service.
You may have no opportunity to speak with an operator or ask questions, but you are automatically enrolled in a club or service program. The phone number from which you call is captured and billed. You often never get the "free" service you called for, or the service you're billed for.
?Contest entry forms. You fill out a contest entry form, thinking you're entering to win a prize. In fact, a promoter is using the contest to get your phone number, enroll you for a calling card or similar service and bill you on your phone bill.
The disclosure on the entry form which is hard to understand and in fine print says that by completing the form, you are authorizing the service. You may never get the service, just the bills.
?Direct mail sweepstakes. You receive a sweepstakes promotion in the mail that tells you to dial an 800 number to enter or claim your prize. When you call, a recording follows an automated script to automatically enroll you in a club or service program. The phone number from which you call is captured and billed. Once again, the disclosure on the sweepstakes mailer is hard to comprehend and in very fine print, and you do not get the service, just the bills.
?"Instant" calling cards. Someone may use your phone to call an 800 number for an adult entertainment service and be offered an "instant calling card." The calling card isn't an actual card, but rather an access code based on the phone number from which the call was placed. The card is used to access and bill for the entertainment service. If someone uses your phone to sign up for such a card, your phone number will be billed for all purchases of entertainment made using that card, regardless of whether they are made from your phone.
?Dating service calls. You call an 800 number advertised as a way to meet local people for free. You're told your date will call you back, or you're asked to enter a code to be "teleconferenced" with your date. What you are not told is that you'll be charged a hefty fee for your conversation with your date. Charges for these calls show up on your phone bill incorrectly labeled as collect or toll charges from a different city.
?International calls. Some ads for entertainment services tell you to call a number starting with 011, 500 or another unfamiliar area code. The ads don't explain that these numbers are for expensive international calls, and that the entertainment provider is making money every minute you stay on the line.
?"Free minutes" deals. You may see ads promising "free time" for a date line, psychic line or other adult entertainment service. When you call, you're put on hold but told you won't be charged for this time. Not always true: Sometimes the "hold time" is deducted from your free minutes. In fact, you may be billed for some of your "hold time" as well as your "talk time."
To avoid cramming, the FTC suggests the following precautions:
?Be aware that your local telephone company may bill for services provided by other companies. Your local phone bill may include charges for long-distance phone calls, information or entertainment services accessed through 900 numbers, presubscription agreements, club memberships and nonbasic services like voice mail or paging.
?With the right technology, companies can get your phone number when you call them, using a process similar to caller ID. Once they have your number, they can cram charges onto your bill. Since this technology automatically bills the number called from, other people using your phone can cause charges to be billed to your account.
?Carefully read the fine print before filling out contest forms, especially if they ask for your phone number. Likewise, read the fine print before calling in response to a sweepstakes promotion.
?Be cautious about calling unfamiliar 800 numbers, and be especially wary if you're told to enter codes, leave your name or answer "yes" to prompts.
?900 numbers cost money, even if you're calling to claim a "free" prize. All 900 numbers that cost more than $2 must give an introductory message about the service, the provider and the cost, then you have three seconds to hang up without being charged.
?Consider a 900 number block, which stops calls from going through to a 900 number. Blocks are also available for international, long-distance and local toll calls.
?Check your phone bill every month for unfamiliar charges. Sometimes a call to an 800 number may be fraudulently billed as a 900 number, collect call or international call. Calls to foreign providers may be listed as ordinary international toll calls or calling-card calls.
?Examine your phone bill for recurring monthly charges. These charges typically appear as "Miscellaneous Charges and Credits." They may be so small or described in such general terms that they are easy to overlook or to confuse with valid services.
Watch for fees described as "Min. Use Fee," "Activation," "Member Fee," "Voice Mail," etc. If there is an error on your bill, follow the instructions on your statement. Follow up any phone conversations/complaints with a letter, sent by certified mail, return receipt requested.
If you are crammed, first try to resolve the problem by contacting the telephone company, information provider or billing agent whose toll-free number is listed on your phone bill. If you call, follow up with a letter, the FTC states.
You should also consider contacting the Federal Trade Commission or the state's attorney general's office.
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