Consumers can overlook unauthorized charges because they can be listed in an abbreviated form or under a name that's not recognized, regulators said. And frequently, consumers don't read lengthy phone bills, particularly if using automatic bill payments, so they don't catch cramming.
The FTC sued Georgia-based Wise Media and its owners last month for allegedly placing unauthorized charges on phone bills for text-messaged horoscopes, love advice and flirting tips for $9.99 a month. Some consumers didn't knowingly sign up for the service, the agency said, while others told Wise Media they didn't want the service but still were charged. The scheme netted Wise Media millions of dollars since 2011, the FTC said.
Wise Media and its owners denied the allegations in a court document, and their lawyer said last week that they are cooperating with the regulator's investigation.
But this case and others brought by state regulators are a sign that the industry's self-policing isn't good enough, consumer advocates said.
"Good guidelines can't replace reasonable regulation," said Chilsen with the Citizens Utility Board.
For now, though, consumers are left largely at the mercy of the wireless industry, with each carrier having its own policy on dealing with cramming.
It's up to the phone company, for instance, whether to refund all or some of the unauthorized charges that might have gone undetected for months.
Until more protections are adopted, consumers ought to be on the lookout for cramming.
If you get a strange text that you suspect might be from a crammer, check out the phone or code number in the message at SMSwatchdog.com, Chilsen advised. The site allows you to see what other consumers have reported about the sender.
Consumers also ought to review their cellphone bills each month for unauthorized charges.
"Scam artists depend on hiding these small, vaguely worded charges among a forest of fees on your cellphone," Chilsen said. "It can be difficult to spot them."
If you notice one, contact the phone company immediately to dispute the charge. Phone company policies differ, but consumers should offer to pay all of their bill except the disputed charges, Chilsen said.
Consumers also should file a complaint with the FTC or their state agency, and let the phone company know they have done so, Chilsen said.
To prevent further cramming, ask the phone company to block third-party charges on your phone bill, a feature offered by many phone carriers.