The average person is paying over $70 a month on their cell phone bill.
With those kinds of prices, it's infuriating to realize that small-time scammers may be sneaking extra charges into the fine print. But that's exactly what the Federal Trade Commission says is happening. It's called cell phone "cramming," and last month the FTC filed the first-ever case about it. The complaint alleges that an Atlanta company called Wise Media sent people unauthorized text messages featuring news or horoscopes, and then billed them $9.99 a month in "subscription" fees for something they had never subscribed to.
--Be on the lookout for third-party billing.
You may be familiar with fundraising efforts for presidential campaigns, disaster relief, and the like that ask you to make a $10 donation by texting a word or two to a special shortcode on your cell phone. That charge then appears on your cell phone bill, which is called "third-party billing." The FTC doesn't want to shut down third-party billing for mobile phones altogether because of these legitimate uses, even though third-party billing is also the way that the no-good crammers operate, and even though Verizon and AT&T have recently banned third-party billing for landlines. So it's left up to individual consumers to police their own bills.
--Scour your bill.
In the absence of an all-out ban on third-party billing, it's important for each one of us to look carefully at our monthly mobile bill, especially if it's more than you expected. You are looking for something under "miscellaneous charges" or "subscription fees" or "surcharges." Note unfamiliar abbreviations, apps or downloads, and calls from area codes you don't recognize.
Even if there aren't any unauthorized charges, taking a close look at your bill has the added benefit of helping you figure out if you're paying for services you don't need, or need to switch to a different plan.
--Be aware of "text spam."
In March, the FTC filed yet another complaint against spammers who sent a total of 180 million unauthorized and unwanted text messages. Sometimes consumers were charged for the messages. Sometimes they offered "free" gift cards or prizes, but in order to claim the supposed gifts people were asked to sign up for personal information or pay for services -- you guessed it, another pathway to cramming.
The safe policy is, if you get any text message written in all caps from a sender you don't recognize, delete it.
By the same token, avoid signing up for contests or special offers that ask for your cell phone number. This is the major way that spammers get hold of cell numbers in the first place. In general, these free offers and prizes are too good to be true.
If it happens to you, take action as soon as possible.
The FTC is working to improve the dispute resolution process when it comes to mobile phone cramming. The first place to contact about an unauthorized charge is your cell phone carrier, who may agree to credit the money back to you. You should ask the company to put a "block" on any third party billing in the future.
The company should also have information about the third party so you can contact them directly to dispute the charge. Follow up by putting your complaint in writing: email and certified mail both work.
Finally, the FTC requests that you file a complaint with it as well. Go to FTC.gov or call 1-877-FTC-HELP. You can also contact your state attorney general's office with the problem.
Just because you've complained, don't assume the problem is taken care of. Follow up by checking your bill next month to make sure the charges don't reappear.
(Anya Kamenetz' latest book is "DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education." She welcomes your questions at email@example.com)