Creative Consumer: Avoid Telephone Bill Scams

Do you understand your phone bill? Of course not. With all those mysterious taxes, fees, and abbreviations nobody does.

And that has allowed a shady business practice to flourish. It's called "cramming." That's where outside companies cram your phone bill with all sorts of specialty services that you never ordered or used. Often, they're small charges that customers are unlikely to notice or protest. But bill enough people 27 cents and it adds up.

The Federal Trade Commission says one crammer charged $34 million worth of fake collect calls to consumers across the country. The FTC has now banned businessman Willoughby Farr from doing any billing via local phone companies for the rest of his life. The FTC calls his a "massive unauthorized billing scam" and says it went on for more than two years. Farr did not admit guilt by settling the case.

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Local phone companies provide billing for all sorts of other businesses. In addition to collect calling services, crammers sometimes bill for dating lines, psychic services and adult entertainment. They have also been known to place bogus charges for fancy voice-mail services, personal 800 numbers or paging options onto your bill.

Do Your Homework

If you like the local and long distance companies you're with and the extras you currently have, call and ask that your account be "locked" so that your signature is required for any changes in service.

If you are slammed or crammed, immediately contact the company listed on your bill. Ironically, often there is an 800 number to call.

Also contact the company in charge of your phone bills (usually your local phone company) and ask that your account be corrected.

Quickly scan your phone bill every month for unfamiliar companies and mysterious charges. They're often listed under "miscellaneous charges and credits." Look for catch words like "enhanced services," "minimum use fee," "activation" and "member fee."

Where to Complain

The Federal Communications Commission regulates phone companies. For help closer to home, try your public service commission or public utilities commission. Your state attorney general should also be able to help.