Take a closer look at those phone bills friends! A few months ago we noticed that a mysterious charge for ‘Vmail’ had appeared on the phone bill for one of fax lines. Our phone company had just switched us from paper to email billing so we almost missed the $14.95 charge hidden near the bottom of the bill. Fortunately we run a tight ship so the charge didn’t slip past us and we looked into the charge. What we found was disturbing; a nationwide cramming scam, phone companies hindering customer’s attempts to remove the charge, and a flawed telecommunications law making the whole mess possible.
‘Cramming’ is a scam where a company adds a charge to a phone bill for a service that was not requested, agreed to, or used. In our case, the charge was for a voice mail service on one of our fax lines –a service we never asked for, never agreed to, and which we could never use because it doesn’t actually exist. That’s right, even if we had wanted to use ‘Vmail’ we couldn’t because it doesn’t exist.
It took over five hours just to sort out things out with our phone company. We had a long run around through the automated system and from ‘wrong’ department to ‘wrong’ department. When we did speak to real people we got another kind of run around; they insisted that we had signed up for the service and when we insisted on having the charge removed we were transferred. Finally, we demanded to speak to a manager and got the answers we needed in less than ten minutes.
What we learned is that, legally, because of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, phone companies have to include charges from other companies in their bills unless the customer contacts them requesting a block of all third party billing. There is no selective screening, the 1996 law prevents phone companies from ‘discriminating’ against any companies which place charges. Our phone company could have saved us a lot of time and frustration by giving us this information from the start, it was terrible customer service on their part and completely unacceptable. But, otherwise, their hands are legally tied when it comes to this kind of scam. They are required by law to accept third party charges and have no legal means of verifying that their customer requested the services in question. Aside from the quality of their customer service, there is no difference between Qwest, Verizon, AT&T, Embarq, or any other national phone company when it comes to this scam.
How to prevent Cramming.
- Call the phone company in question and demand that they block all third party billing on the account. Sometimes phone company representatives try to talk customers out of the block but insist even if they say its not possible.
- Carefully check every phone bill – act immediately if a new or unknown charge appears.
How to resolve Cramming.
- Contact your phone company immediately and tell them that you did not authorize the charges and ask for the charges to be removed. Your phone company does have the authority to remove the charges but will often require* you to try to resolve the issue with the company that placed the charge.
- Call the company that placed the charge and inform them that you did not request the services. Tell them that you would like to know who authorized the services and ask for a copy of the authorization information. Companies have been known to request more personal information, such as social security numbers, do not give them more personal information than they already have.
- Ask that all charges be removed. If the company refuses or never responds, get back in touch with the phone company. Tell them that you could not resolve the charges with the company in question and tell them that you did not authorize the disputed charges. Ask the phone company to remove all charges. Be insistent, even if they say they can’t – they can. Talk to more than one person if you need to.
Things to remember!
- Customers are not legally obligated to pay charges on their telephone bills for services that they have not ordered or authorized others to order for them.
- Telephone services cannot be disconnected because a customer refuses to pay a charge from a third party. Threats of phone lines being disconnected are legally empty.
- Crammers sometimes hire legitimate collection agencies to collect the charges ‘owed’ to them. This can be very damaging to credit ratings and should be addressed immediately. Explain the situation to the collection agency and, if that resolves nothing, either pay the ‘charges’ or get legal aid.
We submitted complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission, the Pennsylvania Attorney General (check the map on this page to find your state’s), and the Better Business Bureau. Little can be done to stop this kind of scam on a national level but several states, including New York and Florida, are taking action to prevent cramming. Get your State to join them in taking steps to outlaw cramming; send letters to your elected officials letting them know that you’re sick of this scam!