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Your Phone Bill May Be 'Crammed' With Unexpected Charges

You're reading through your phone bill when a new charge catches your eye. Paging? When did you order a paging service? You're sure you didn't ask for it, but now you're paying for it.

Cramming occurs when unordered, unwanted phone services such as personal 800 numbers, paging and voice mail are added to phone bills. The services are provided by third-party companies and billed through the customer's local phone carrier. According to the National Consumers League, which has been keeping track of cramming complaints since late October, Maryland ranks third for complaints.

The charges for these services may carry confusing names like "enhanced services" that sound as if they are coming from your local carrier. When you contact your local telephone company for specific information -- such as the phone number or address of the company that is providing the unwanted service -- the information is often hard to track down.

In some cases, consumers have been tricked into purchasing these unwanted services when they filled out a sweepstakes entry. In some other cases, the cramming charges piggyback other scams such as slamming, the name given to an unauthorized switch in your long-distance carrier.

Here are some tips for avoiding and correcting unwanted phone service charges:

  • Always read your phone bill carefully. If you identify any charges you don't understand, call your local phone company for an explanation. If you are being billed for a service you did not order, ask the phone company to remove the charge. You may also file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Division. Send a letter explaining the problem, with copies of your phone bills, to: Consumer Protection Division, 16th floor, 200 St. Paul Place, Baltimore, MD 21202.
  • Be wary of calling unfamiliar area codes, which can carry concealed charges, and which may be part of a scam. Listen carefully to any instructions at the beginning of the call and be careful not to answer "yes" to anything that might inadvertently authorize an unwanted phone service.
  • Avoid entering contests that require you to sign the entry form. Or, prior to entering, read the entry form carefully to make certain the fine print does not relate to an unwanted phone service.
  • File a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, which tracks the complaints for possible future regulatory action. Send your complaint to FCC, Consumer Protection Branch, Mail Stop 1600A2, Washington, DC 20006.

Slamming continues

Cramming's older cousin, slamming, is still alive and well. Consumers still frequently report they receive their phone bill and learn their long distance company has been switched without their permission. The result can be higher long-distance charges.

If you discover that your long-distance company has been changed without your permission, call your local phone company right away. You should not be charged for the cost to switch you back to your chosen carrier. You may also have to call your old long-distance company before you can be returned to their service.

Pay phone calling rates

Many consumers are surprised by higher than expected charges for calls made at pay phones. Some pay phones are connected to companies that charge high rates and add surcharges to calling-card rates. To avoid this, the Federal Communications Commission advises getting a calling card that allows you to access your chosen long-distance company by dialing a toll-free number and then entering an access code. After you enter your calling card information, listen carefully to the name of the carrier, which should be announced before the call goes through. If you do not recognize it as the name on your calling card, you might be subject to surcharges or higher rates than you expected.

Helpful Web Sites

For more information about telephone service scams, you may want to visit:

The Federal Communications Commission

National Consumers League

January 1998

Maryland Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division
Consumer hotline: (410) 528-8662 or 1 (888) 743-0023 toll-free

 
 

Attorney General of Maryland 1 (888) 743-0023 toll-free / TDD: (410) 576-6372
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