Mystery Cell Phone Charges

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Broad Problem

Cole and McDonald are two of many cellular customers that shared with PC World near-identical stories of recurring mystery fees on their bills, along with similar hassles in stopping the charges. The Better Business Bureau and multiple state attorneys general have received thousands of complaints about Blinko, many alleging similar mysterious charges and difficulty getting rid of them.

For example, Blinko is facing a class action lawsuit in Michigan over sending Verizon Wireless customers in that state "unwanted text messages and monthly charges." The Florida attorney general is investigating similar claims against Blinko, according to public records. Mobile game and ringtone provider M-Qube, a subsidiary of telecommunications and security services company VeriSign, faces a similar class action suit in Massachusetts. VeriSign declined to comment.

Verizon Wireless and AT&T (formerly Cingular) are also contending with customer lawsuits. The suits allege that customers were billed monthly without consent for a "Roadside Assistance" program for over two years (for more on these suits, read "Why We Love to Hate Our Cell Phone Company").

Mergers to Blame?

Merger mania has done much to improve wireless reliability, says Serge Matta, an analyst with ComScore Networks--but, he adds, it's made companies' billing systems worse. Merged companies have to cobble together the billing systems of the entities that are involved in the merger. The end result, Matta contends, is bungled bills.

The new AT&T, for example, is made up of Cingular, AT&T Wireless, BellSouth, SBC, Southwestern Bell, and Ameritech. "Merging those billing systems has been a nightmare for companies," Matta says.

Even companies that aren't dealing with a merger may have problems, since many systems are antiquated and weren't designed to cope with the many new products and services you can now purchase via a cell phone, says Elisabeth Rainge, director of telecom software research for IDC. The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, a trade group, acknowledges that "there is work to be done" when it comes to billing for third-party services.

The CTIA is developing a system to monitor third-party services and root out the Bad apples, says Joe Farren, a spokesperson for the association; but Farren could give no time frame for the completion of this monitoring system.

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