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How to protect yourself from smartphone bill cramming

Brian S Hall | July 21, 2014
You might not be familiar with the term "cramming." But if you're not careful, it could be costing you money on your mobile phone bill each month.

Is cramming a new phenomenon?
No. As Legere has pointed out in his response to the FTC allegations, cramming has been an ongoing problem within the industry.

"It is true, that back in 2009 thru 2013, all of the big carriers in the wireless industry, including T-Mobile, began carrying what became known as the Premium SMS services," Legere wrote. "We were all billing for these services on behalf of the content providers who were responsible for obtaining the customers' authorizations." Legere added that T-Mobile terminated fraudulent content providers as it became aware of them, and stopped allowing third parties to bill customers for premium SMS services in November 2013. (Both AT&T and Sprint ended that practice at that time too, as part of an industry-wide concession on premium text messages.)

Jack Gold, a long-time telco analyst, says that cramming "has been going on for years, and not just with T-Mobile." According to Gold, cramming thrives in part because government regulatory bodies have failed to demand greater bill transparency for consumers. While bills are still difficult to decode, Gold tells me that government is now more aggressively going after carriers and content providers for "excessive and sometimes unwarranted fees."

How can I tell if I've been crammed?
Read your bill. No, really. Read it. Keep an eye out for words like "membership," "member fee," "subscription," "activation," or "calling plan." If you're not sure, call your phone company. The FTC says the most common dollar amount for a cramming charge is $9.99, though very often the chargers are for smaller amounts that are easy to overlook.

OK, I've been crammed. What do I do now?
Contact your phone carrier if you don't recognize a specific charge. Ask that any unauthorized charges be removed and refunded. You should also file a complaint with the FTC online or call 1-877-FTC-HELP.

Does the government go after crammers?
Yes. Last year, the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) declared "mobile cramming" a consumer protection priority. Soon after, federal and state authorities pressured the major wireless carriers, including T-Mobile, to stop offering "premium text message" services, long the primary money spigot for third-party crammers--hence that November 2013 move to drop premium SMS services billing.

Earlier this year, the FTC settled what it called a "massive mobile cramming scheme." The case was brought against providers of premium text message services, which included services like daily "love tips," "fun facts" and "celebrity gossip alerts."

The government is also going after carriers, with its case against T-Mobile just the latest instance. In 2011, the FCC settled a cramming case against Verizon, where the nation's largest wireless carrier agreed to pay a $25 million fine.


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