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Watch out for unauthorized charges on cellphone bills

Take a line-by-line look at your cellphone bill — all dozen or so pages. See a $9.99 charge for horoscopes, flirting tips or some such thing that you didn't request?

If so, you've been crammed.

Once only a big problem with landline telephones, cramming — the placement of unauthorized charges on phone bills by outsiders — is gaining a foothold in the mobile-phone marketplace, regulators and consumer advocates say. Indeed, some landline crammers have migrated to wireless schemes as consumers switch to smartphones.

The Federal Trade Commission filed its first mobile cramming lawsuit against a company last month, and the agency says more such cases are likely to follow. The agency held a one-day workshop last week to explore mobile cramming and how to stop it.

"The cellphone industry is like the Wild West right now," said Jim Chilsen, director of communications for the Citizens Utility Board, an Illinois-based consumer advocate, and a panelist at the FTC workshop.

Using a mobile phone to make purchases or pay bills can be convenient, particularly for those without a traditional bank account. And mobile payments have been a boon for charities seeking to raise small sums from thousands of new donors following a catastrophe.

Mobile cramming typically involves commercial enterprises billing consumers without their permission or knowledge for horoscope, trivia or love tips sent by text message to mobile phones, regulators said. The extent of cramming is unclear. The wireless industry says it's not a growing problem. But the National Consumers League estimates Americans pay as much as $730 million a year in fraudulent charges.

Marylanders have filed a handful of complaints in each of the past two years to the state's consumer protection division.

"The complaints we receive really are just the tip of the iceberg," said Philip Ziperman, an assistant attorney general in the state's consumer protection division who attended last week's FTC workshop. "The concern in my office is that as people increasingly use their mobile phones to pay for services, the problem is only going to grow."

Ziperman declined to say whether Maryland is preparing any action against mobile crammers.

The wireless industry, which self-polices against cramming, several years ago set up guidelines on when outside parties are allowed to place charges on a consumer's phone bill. One key provision is the double opt-in, in which consumers must confirm twice they agree to a purchase before they can be charged for it on their monthly bill.

Usually, the initial opt-in occurs when a consumer signs up for a service on the Internet. Then the service or content provider sends a text message to the consumer's mobile phone number, seeking a second confirmation.

Mike Altschul, a senior vice president and general counsel for the CTIA, a wireless industry association, said cramming is not increasing, noting that the volume of complaints to regulators has remained steady in recent years.

Altschul said his group opposes new government regulations on cramming, arguing that phone companies and others in the industry would react more quickly to the latest fraud schemes.

"Regulation is so static," he said. "It takes years for the government to investigate, craft [rules] and seek comments, and authorize a particular practice in an industry with technologies and fraudsters that are evolving every day."

But regulators and consumer advocates said industry guidelines can be circumvented easily by bad actors.

Some consumers are led to believe the service they are signing up for online is free, regulators and consumer advocates said. When they get a text later about the service, they might delete the message, thinking it is spam. Some crammers consider this lack of a response a confirmation that the customer wants the service.

Complaints to regulators also are a poor measure of the extent of cramming, regulators and advocates said. Often consumers complain to their phone carrier — not regulators — when they've been crammed.

"Consumers don't even understand this is happening," said Kate Whelley McCabe, an assistant attorney general in Vermont, during the FTC workshop.

Her office released a survey last week of more than 800 consumers who were asked to review third-party charges on their cellphone bills. Nearly 80 percent were unaware that outside companies could tack on fees to phone bills, while 55 percent discovered charges they hadn't known about.

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.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

twitter.com/eileenambrose

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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