The joke is on cellphone users

"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?"

Not yet.

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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