This is a slightly-rewritten consolidation of a couple of articles by the Ohio Consumers' Counsel; their text is used with permission.
When companies add charges to your telephone bill for services that you never authorized or ordered, it's called "cramming", because additional charges have been crammed onto your bill.
How does cramming happen? Unauthorized or fraudulent charges are added to your bill when a telephone company or other information services provider (like 900 number chat lines) sends inaccurate billing information -- whether mistakenly or intentionally -- to the customer's local telephone company, which acts as an unquestioning billing agent for many long-distance providers. The local telephone company then sends the customer a bill with those charges. Some unauthorized charges that you should check your bill for include "membership fees" for adult-oriented services, unordered voice mail, calling cards, collect calls and mysterious "monthly service fees."
The charge for these unwanted services is usually between $3 and $30; many crammers rely on consumers not noticing the charges or considering them too small to bother complaining about. Some charges could show up each month as recurring charges. Though the amounts are usually small, there have been instances where cramming has amounted to hundreds of dollars in additional charges.
Charges for various services should be itemized on your telephone bill. If you're not sure whether charges are connected with your regular telephone service or are for extra services, ask your local telephone company.
The name of the company providing services and its toll-free number should be listed on the page showing those charges. If you did not authorize the services, call that number and insist that they be canceled and that the charges are removed from your bill. If you can't get through to the company, call your local telephone carrier and ask them to file a complaint on your behalf.
Note: If you are disputing charges, be sure to pay the undisputed portion of your bill by the due date. Refusing to pay the entire bill will undermine your cause.
Tips for dealing with cramming:
- Carefully read the fine print before filling out contest forms or coupons. You may be agreeing to new telephone services.
- Carefully review your telephone bill each month. Look for company names you do not recognize, phone numbers you do not recognize, calls listed on days when you were out of town and charges for services you did not order (or do not understand.) The FCC requires any changes of service to be "clearly and conspicuously" indicated on telephone bills.
- Keep a record of telephone services you have authorized and used, including calls to 900 numbers and other pay-per-call services.
- If you can't control who uses your phone, consider blocking 900 number services entirely; such a block will be provided for free by your local phone provider.
- If you find something suspicious on your bill, immediately call the company that charged you for the services or calls. If the company agrees to remove the disputed charges, it is a good idea to also let your local telephone company know about these charges. If the company refuses, notify your local carrier that you're still disputing the charges.
- Your telephone service can not be disconnected as long as you continue to pay your basic local service. However, the company can refer the matter to a collection agency that will proceed to badger you incessantly.
If you believe you've been the victim of cramming for non-telephone-related services (such as a psychic hotline or internet charges), file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP. If the cramming is telephone service related (such as unwanted voice mail) and you can't resolve the problem on your own, call your state regulatory commission; you can usually find the number in the "government" section of your phone book.
ObCitation: The Ohio Consumers' Counsel is the residential utility advocacy agency for Ohio; their site is at http://www.pickocc.org/