The Checkout

Warrantless Wireless Bills

Here's just a small sample of the e-mails I've gotten in the past few weeks about what seems to be a very troubling pattern: unwanted charges on a cellphone bill, particularly for what's called SMS service. (That stands for Short Message Service--for text messages such as horoscopes or jokes sent to cellphones and PDAs.)

* "I have been charged over $60.00 in the past month for a service I did not sign up for. I have contacted Sprint. ... I was given a credit of $9.99 but had to pay the other $21.00. I am mad as hell ... and I have voiced my complaints to Sprint. I contacted the number I was given twice to be removed from their list, but all I get is a recording telling me to leave a message or enter my number for removal ... How can Sprint allow these people to add charges to my bill without my authorization? Is there any advice on how to end this nightmare once and for all?"

* "T-Mobile stuffed my T-Mobile phone account with a $9.95 per month fee [for Blinko, a ring tone service]. When I asked whether they sold my SMS address or it was stolen, the customer service manager became very indignant. He said that the former user of my phone number must have subscribed. The problem with that explanation is that I had owned the phone number for years before "porting" it to T-Mobile."

* "My wife starting getting text messages from a company we never heard of. When I complained, Verizon first said I had to take it up with the company sending the junk, but finally relented and gave me full credit. I know my wife did not subscribe to this stuff -- she doesn't even know where to find the SMSs on her phone."

* "My wife recently purchased three phones, one for her and the others for son and daughter. Before my son had used his for the first time he said there were messages on it. He has been receiving messages every day from a joke site. He said he didn't download them. ... My wife went into the store to ask if they could find out what was going on. The person she talked to said he could see that he had not downloaded them. Then another, I presume higher-up clerk, took over and said 'He downloaded these,' in a very insulting tone of voice. My wife disagreed but asked what could be done. The clerk snapped back. 'Well you can change your number. There will be $15 charge and we will not take those charges off.' My wife told them to change the number. Just tonight as she got home with the new number and before my son had touched the phone, she turned it on to see what the new number was and da da. ... new messages from that joke site."

* "Soon after I entered into a contract with Sprint, I began receiving test messages for a horoscope and what appeared to be a dating service. I believe that the person who previously had my phone number had subscribed to these two services. When I received my first Sprint bill, I saw the charges and called Sprint. The first month, they reversed the charges, and said they would stop the unwanted messages. The messages did not stop, however, and the next month when I called, they told me to respond to the messages by typing in a code, explaining that when the 3rd party company received the code the messages would stop. I followed the instructions and had a surprising result: The horoscope and dating service stopped, but now I began receiving a weather update each day. Once again I complained to Sprint upon receiving my bill. They had no suggestions for terminating the weather service, so this time, I simply had Sprint cut off my text messaging services entirely."

I have lots, lots more e-mails like this; ever since I first wrote about this practice, I've gotten several a week. I have never received so many complaints about a single business practice in my more than eight years as a consumer reporter. That may be because the Internet has made complaining very easy--or maybe it's because there's really a serious problem here. I think it's both.

What I've learned in researching these complaints is that there's been very little oversight of the cellphone companies or the third-party firms about these issues. In fact, many state and federal regulators seem surprised to hear about these complaints. They shouldn't be; they are very similar to the unauthorized charges that used to be found on landline telephone bills a decade ago. You've probably heard of that practice--it's been called "cramming," in which phone bills are used to trick consumers into paying for services they did not authorize or receive or that cost more than the consumer was led to believe. This is on top of spamming--those unwanted text messages that a lot of consumers are also complaining about, especially because they have to pay for each incoming message. But I'll save that discussion for another day.

Only one cellphone company (Verizon) was quick to acknowledge that these unauthorized charges are a growing problem. The problems apparently started about six months ago when cellphone companies let down what they call "the walled garden" to open up SMS market to outside vendors so third-party companies could offer consumers more options for ring tones, daily jokes, horoscopes, etc. "Clearly there have been some glitches in this by some of these contact providers," said Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson.

That's little comfort for those who have been hit with these charges--and then endured endless amount of time and frustration to get these charges corrected. The wireless trade association (otherwise known as CTIA) said these charges shouldn't be occurring since the industry published new mobile-marketing guidelines that urge companies to make sure consumers are asked not once but twice for prior approval to receive ring tones, jokes and other fee-laden services on their cellphones.

My e-mail messages suggest a lot of companies are not following these guidelines. What's a consumer to do? The answer, unfortunately, is not easy because there's no one single regulator that has oversight. But here are some recommendations:

1. If you receive any unwanted text messages--even before you have your bill, immediately call your cellphone company and complain. Verizon's Nelson says the company can't take action against any company unless it knows about the unauthorized charges. Nelson also suggests you save your text message because it may have some codes it in that the company's security experts can read to track down the appropriate company.

2. If you are billed for any services you didn't authorize or use, immediately call the cellphone company and ask them to remove any incorrect charges to your bill. At the same time contact the third-party company to get the charge corrected and the messages stopped. This last step may be quite hard since a lot of these companies can only be contacted by e-mail and it's not always clear that they receive the requests, let alone address them.

3. This leads me to the next step: File complaints with the appropriate regulatory agencies. Which ones? That may be confusing, so my advice right now is to send to all the appropriate ones:

* The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees interstate calls and the wireless industry.

* The Federal Trade Commission, which has, in the past, taken action against third-party companies that placed unauthorized charges on the landline phone bills.

* Your state public service commission and/or state attorney general.

In other words, yell loudly and often, but don't expect a quick solution. Maybe your complaints will finally alert regulators that there's a real problem out there. Meanwhile, you may also want to consider blocking text messages from certain addresses--but it's unclear if you'll still be billed for those messages. And you may end up blocking all text messages, even those your want.

Please keep me posted. Write me at thecheckout@carolinemayer.com

P.S. I just heard from T-Mobile;here's what spokesman Peter Dobrow had to say in an e-mail statement:

"By allowing customers the ability to purchase/receive content and services from third party content providers, T-Mobile gives its customers the freedom to personalize their phone or device with an even wider range of services/content. As a leader in wireless customer service, it is T-Mobile's practice to provide credit for rightful disputes related to third-party charges, including Blinko."

T-Mobile said it would like to investigate any customer claims that assert that credits were not applied to unwarranted charges.

By  |  August 18, 2006; 7:00 AM ET Consumer Tips
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Comments

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I must say: congratulations to Verizon for actually admitting there's a problem. Makes me feel a little better about what their response might be if this ever happens to me. (Ok, ok, maybe I'm irrationally optimistic, but then I've never had serious problems with Verizon customer service.)

Posted by: h3 | August 18, 2006 8:05 AM

I currently have Verizon, and it's like pulling teeth to get anything corrected with them. I'm interested in what people with other providers think about their providers. Is Cingular good? T-Mobile? Sprint? I've only ever had Verizon, so I'm not sure what the pros/cons of other providers are. Thanks!

Posted by: Want to change cell phone providers | August 18, 2006 9:38 AM

Thank you for writing this article. My husband and I have not dealt with this issue before, but I will be certain to keep an eye out for it. And now that I know what to do I won't let the cell phone companies push me around.

To Want to Change Cell Phone Providers: I had Cingular before I switched to Verizon and they were TERRIBLE! I went to school in Tennessee, but my family was in Maryland so I got "nation-wide" coverage. Well, apparently Virginia is NOT part of the nation because my service would cut out once I passed Virginia Tech and wouldn't pick back up till JMU. I complained and complained and complained and they didn't do a darn thing. And they would charge me for roaming when I was in Tennessee, even though I had the nation wide plan. I dropped them a while ago and haven't looked back.

Posted by: Melissa | August 18, 2006 9:51 AM

Caroline -- Hope you read these comments. Thanks for the comprehensive list of things we can do to make a difference. I'd only add, as I have before in an e-mail to you, that you personally, as a blogger on a well-known site, use your clout to hammer away at these miserable companies and their nasty customer service reps. Since you recently announced your retirement from the pages of WashPost, presumably you now have the time to make a difference yourself. Go for it, with our blessing! :-)

Posted by: Gene | August 18, 2006 9:58 AM

Melissa, I have the same problem with Cingular coverage. Yes, parts of Virginia are completely uncovered. But if you look on the Cingular maps, they DO show that you won't get reception there. My mom lives in SW VA and there is NO cell service there at all, so I have accepted that somewhere around JMU I will lose coverage, have it in spots along I-81, and then lose it again around the intersection of I-81 and I-77. I can't understand why Cingular hasn't got that area covered.

Posted by: JB | August 18, 2006 10:09 AM

I don't know why either JB, because you think between the two of us they would have figured it out. I guess they just don't like the rest of Virginia. What's funny is that once I switched cell phone companies I had no problem .... odd.

Posted by: Melissa | August 18, 2006 12:19 PM

A very good article overall, one minor error about T-Mobile. They categorically will NOT stop text messaging, so if you have a problem with charges showing up for unwanted incoming messages, you have to fight the charges one at a time.

Posted by: n2karl | August 18, 2006 2:04 PM

I've had Cingular since 2003 and haven't had a problem. Except I have to charge my phone every night since the battery doesn't hold a charge, but that's not their fault, I just need a better phone.

Posted by: DLC | August 18, 2006 4:09 PM

I have not experienced the text message issues, I have Verizon. Yet Verizon has been extremely unhelpful when it comes to service and overcharges. Soon after I added 50 minutes for "free" and had to get a new phone that mysteriously fell apart soon after my first 2 year contract was up, I started receiving $100 + phone overuse charges that didn't occur when I had 50 fewer minutes. No one at Verizon was able to help find where the extra minutes were coming from and I didn't dramatically change my cell phone usage. Since I was again locked into another two years with Verizon, the charges to cancel my service where exhorbitant.

I don't feel that we as consumers have any rights when it comes to the communications industry. We are completely at the mercy of the communications industry and I feel we have no real way of making a change for the better. It's as bad as any
Monopolistic practice in business.

Furthermore, Verizon offers very few call plans that have either too few (450 minutes) or too many (1000 minutes) minutes. When I asked the customer service reps, why that was the case, they responded by saying that was what the customers wanted. I think it is because they are our only choices.

Phone companies need to provide better coverage, better customer service, and a wider variety of calling plans before offering new, totally useless services. Instead of providing a solid dependable service, they keep adding more useless add-on services as gimmicks.

I wish I had never subscribed to a cell phone service in the first place.

Posted by: Jon | August 18, 2006 5:25 PM

I had a new charge on my telephone bill and it turned out to be a service that allows me or my wive to dial in to email when we are away. Nice, except that she did not order it and we don't travel and we have never checked on a message. But they claimed she had filled out a form. I think se was trying to enter a contest. We got it stopped, but the telephone company wanted one month of payments. I am waiting for the FTC toor the Maryland agency too get it cleared. I was told that my telephone service would not be terminated if I did not pay, but they are charging late fees. These people are crooks and depend on people who pay the bill without looking at it.

If I had any other way to get telephone service I would change. I know it is state law (or federal) that the phone company has to bill for these small companies (crooks?) but I have no confidence in a telephone company that would goa long with the practice. They should protest every day.

The money is small, but the degree of lost trust is great and the same goes for any goodwill I could have had for Verizon.

Posted by: Gary Masters | August 18, 2006 5:56 PM

Great blog. When I first switched to Cingular this year, I got a notice from an auto service club thanking me for signing up and informing me that $5.99 would be added to my Cingular bill each month. When I called to terminate the service, I was informed that the service had been authorized thru Cingular. I certainly didn't authorize the service. Cingular took off the service and blamed an inattentive sales clerk for adding the unwanted service.

Posted by: Jack | August 18, 2006 6:20 PM

"When I first switched to Cingular this year, I got a notice from an auto service club thanking me for signing up and informing me that $5.99 would be added to my Cingular bill each month."

The same thing happened to me and I got the same answer...a service rep must have added it by mistake. I feel the only mistake was Cingular thinking I wouldn't spot it and would gladly pay it. It took 2 billing cycles to get the credit for this "mistake". How many others are paying this and don't realize it?

Posted by: Ken_In_Va | August 21, 2006 9:59 AM

You need to police the bills -- the clerks must get a commission or some incentive. We kept our numbers, but signed on again with new service contracts, and got new phones. Two months later we were billed for a third phone number that we never used! To get to talk to "customer service" is quite frankly a long hard road. (yep, it was Cingular too!) I think next time, I won't let it slide and report them to the MD Attorney General to have it logged as a complaint that is probably a pattern.

Posted by: another charge | August 21, 2006 10:25 AM

Do any of the cell phome providers offer an option to block all 3d-party offers?

Posted by: George | August 21, 2006 10:48 AM

I've never had any cell provider but t-mobile (because they are the cheapest). We started with 1 phone 3-4 years ago and added a second last year. Had a phone go bad and they replaced it right away. Had a mistake on a bill once and they gave me a month free on my plan.

Maybe I've just been incredibly lucky.

Posted by: Long Time T-Mobile customer | August 21, 2006 11:37 AM

I had cingular and started getting text messages from some ring tone place that magicly signed me up , I complained and had the charges removed then they kept showing up - they refused to credit my bill I ended up having to track down the service and cancel it

But basicly the phone companys are the problem by allowing third partys to use them to collect there charge

And there is NO WAY you can not get a text message - they refuse to block it because I am sure they collect a fee from proccessing the charge

They are the problem by collecting the fees from there rip off scams

I

Posted by: Michael , Minnesota | August 21, 2006 1:09 PM

Verizon will block ALL text messages @ no charge.

Posted by: Harry in NJ | August 21, 2006 3:31 PM

I've had Cingular for 6 years. We renewed our contract about a year ago and about 6 months after we did, I was getting the auto charges at about $5.99 a month. They said surely I must have signed up for it. Uh no. They gave me credit and I haven't seen it since, but it surely made me angry. The only other problem I've had with Cingular has been in collecting my phone rebates. Takes forever.

My parents live in SW VA too and I have no problems with reception up and down 81 except I'm on the backside of a hill. I just drove it 2 weeks ago and chatted on the phone almost the entire way. No issues at all.

Posted by: Me too | August 31, 2006 2:43 PM

I am a Verizon Wireless user. We first began experiencing the problems you describe here last Fall when I began receiving text messages on my cell phone out of nowhere. At first, I thought the messages were coming from Verizon. When I telephoned the company to ask them to stop sending me the text messages, I was told that I had subscribed to the text messaging service. That month there were about $23 worth of charges on my telephone. Verizon claimed they could do nothing. I got the third party to reimburse me for the charges. However, this took a great deal of time (tracking the company down, emailing them--without result, calling them--over and over, until they finally responded. Now, in August, I received a batch of text messages from a different company for a total of $30. We have subscribed to nothing.

I spoke with Verizon this morning. I was told it was "impossible" that I was receiving these messages without being a subscriber! They were totally non-responsive to my complaint.

I intend to call again, after reading this article. I have already contacted the FTC and filed a complaint, as well as the State Attorney General's Office. I am very angry about this ongoing problem. I will now put a block on my line, but why should I have to do that? Why should these people being able to scam these charges with the help of Verizon and other telecommunications companies? Something needs to be done!

Posted by: Rob | September 6, 2006 4:19 PM

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