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 email@example.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.
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