Keith Fitzgerald, a concessions manager for Los Angeles International Airport, was in the middle of a meeting last month when his cellphone suddenly emitted an unfamiliar ring. He'd received his first-ever text message.
"Why did Willie Nelson get hit by a car?" it read. "Because he was on the road again."
"I thought it must be a mistake," Fitzgerald, 62, said. "But then I got another stupid joke the next day, and the day after that."
And then came the punch line: Buried deep within his next Verizon Wireless bill was a $9.99 charge for something called Kepler Joke Text, plus a $1.35 fee from Verizon for having received the text messages.
Fitzgerald was one of many cellphone users who'd fallen victim to a scam making the rounds: shadowy outfits that obtain people's wireless numbers and sign up consumers for unwanted text-message services that come with recurring monthly fees.
The one that hit Fitzgerald, called Jokemobi, has sparked numerous complaints to wireless companies, which were already dealing with gripes from customers about similar text-message scams.
"It's an industrywide problem," said Kathleen Dunleavy, a spokeswoman for Sprint. "Customers need to get more educated about this issue."
What makes this type of scam so insidious is that you get nailed twice: first the service's recurring charge and then your wireless provider's fees for receiving text messages even though you didn't even want them.
And this is a racket that can go unnoticed for many months unless you're one of the relatively few consumers who reads all bills closely. This may be unlikely if you have a wireless plan that you believe will remain consistent throughout the year.
The problem has become so widespread that CTIA -- The Wireless Assn., an industry group, launched a multimillion-dollar program last year to monitor service providers such as Jokemobi and require them to uphold industry standards for consumer friendliness.
Jokemobi's website, at www.jokemobi.com, allows you to enter any cellphone number -- yours, someone else's, whoever's -- to begin the enrollment process. The site indicates that a PIN will be required to activate the service, but as Fitzgerald's case showed, the jokes can start up without authorization.
"I NEVER ASKED TO GET THIS and I didn't reply with the PIN number to start the service," one person wrote at the Metroblogging Los Angeles website.
No one at Jokemobi could be reached for comment. The registrant for the site's dot-com domain, John Kepler, also couldn't be reached.
Regina Costa, telecom research director for the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco advocacy group, said it appears that some data companies are compiling cellphone numbers obtained from a variety of sources and selling them to marketers.
Scammers obtain possibly hundreds of thousands of numbers and enroll people in services they didn't request. If just a small percentage of consumers overlooks subsequent fees for several months or longer, Costa said, the returns for scammers can be highly lucrative.
"This is the most outrageous scam I've ever heard of," Fitzgerald said. "I can't believe that cellphone companies accept these charges without any checking at all."
That's the thing. Most cellphone companies aren't dealing directly with service providers such as Jokemobi. They deal instead with third parties -- known in the business as aggregators -- that act as middlemen for getting charges onto people's bills.
A cellphone company thus usually knows nothing about the service providers that may appear on its bills.
"We do what we can to prevent this upfront," Ken Muche, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, said of Fitzgerald's situation. "But you can't always predict which companies won't play by the rules."
He and representatives of other wireless companies said they work with customers who may have been victimized by scammers, typically refunding any contested fees.
"Over time, we learn how customers are being treated" by specific service providers, Muche said. "People who don't treat their customers well -- we end our relationship with them."
So does AT&T. Lauren Garner, a spokeswoman for the company, said AT&T was severing ties with Jokemobi after receiving complaints from customers.
"They're under investigation and will be shut down by us," she said.
That's commendable. But there needs to be much greater accountability in this equation. If nothing else, the bar needs to be higher for service providers to make their way onto people's cellphone bills.
It should also be routine for telecom companies to notify customers of any new charges on their bills, much as credit-card companies monitor customers' accounts for unusual activity. You shouldn't have to root around on each statement for any new fees.
"The cellphone carriers, by billing these charges without any proof of legitimacy, seem to be accomplices in the thievery," Fitzgerald said. "Is there no responsibility of the carriers to protect their customers from these pickpockets?"
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