Ever since her divorce a few years ago, Sandye Linnetz has kept her finances on a tight leash. When interest rates fall, she asks her credit card company for a better deal. She fixes her own computer and cleans her own house.
So when a mysterious $9.99 monthly charge appeared on her Verizon Wireless bill a few weeks after she renewed her contract, Linnetz did a double-take. The charge came without a description, she said, just a confusing jumble of letters, and she wanted to know what it covered.
A Verizon agent told her it was for monthly phone insurance, Linnetz said, adding that she never signed up for it.
"The customer service rep said, 'That's funny, they may have automatically put it on,'" said Linnetz, who had the charge canceled.
"I don't think it was an accident."
Linnetz is one of many U.S. consumers who said they have noticed unauthorized charges appearing on their phone, cable and even shopping bills. Like Linnetz, some of them believe that companies are intentionally "upselling" their customers with unnecessary services and hoping that the charges will go undetected.
"This kind of thing has been ongoing for some time," said Gary Almond, director of the Better Business Bureau of Los Angeles, explaining that he has often seen companies add services to their customers' bills without consent in his 20 years of working at the bureau.
"It's a profit center for most businesses," Almond said.
Such incidents of aggressive upselling are especially egregious because the charges are initiated by the companies themselves, not by third-party vendors who fraudulently smuggle themselves into bills in the rapidly growing practice of "cramming."
Verizon Wireless would not address Linnetz's case but denied that the company upsells customers without their permission.
"We have 80,000 employees, so mistakes happen. But when they do, we work to make it right," spokeswoman Brenda Raney said. "We constantly train our reps to work with customers, to understand their needs and sell those customers the services they request."
Melissa Companick, president of the Better Business Bureau's New Jersey office, which collects complaints about Verizon Wireless, said she has not seen widescale abuses. She pointed out, however, that roughly 1 percent of complaints in the past four months involved the company's $1.99 "data package" charge added to customers' bills; sometimes several times a month.
Customers say the charge, meant to cover data downloads, is easily triggered by accidentally hitting one of the arrow keys on certain cell phones. They complain that it is incurred even if the command is immediately cancelled.
Verizon's Raney denied that customers are charged if they cancel the command but confirmed that the the button can't be disabled.
"Customers can personalize buttons on most of our phones," she said. "On some handsets, it's not possible to change the Mobile Web start button. If a customer is charged for services he hasn't used, he should contact us right away and we'll reflect that on their bill."
The "data package" charge has also irked regulators. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission sent a letter to Verizon Wireless in December, asking executives to explain how the service is triggered and how customers can opt out of it.