Mystery Cell Phone Charges

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Cell phone companies and third-party vendors, eager to pry more money from subscribers' wallets, are marketing extra services like ringtones, games, music, and more. But an increasingly angry chorus of cell phone customers complain that they're getting mysterious bills for monthly services that they did not intend to sign up for, and that then take months to cancel.

Customers are also upset about paying for spam text messages to their phones. And lawsuits and consumer groups are targeting the huge early termination fees most companies charge and the seeming myriad of taxes that can make up as much as a fifth of monthly phone bills.

Dorothea Cole, of Davenport, Iowa, discovered a monthly $34 charge she didn't recognize on one of her company's Sprint wireless phone bills.
Photograph: Ralf-Finn Hestoft
Perhaps the most frustrating of the problems are the mysterious bills for extra services. Take the case of real estate agent Dorothea Cole, of Davenport, Iowa. Last spring, she discovered a monthly $34 charge she didn't recognize on one of her firm's Sprint wireless phone bills. The carrier said the charge was from a third-party service, not Sprint. But the support reps said they were unable to identify the the charge. The phone had been used by a former employee who was no longer reachable, so it was up to Cole to figure out how to stop this recurring charge.

When she asked Sprint to stop the billing, it refused and told her to contact the company herself. But since Sprint had said it couldn't name the company, Cole was stuck. She says her bill indicated only that the charge was for a "Premium Services Non-Telecom Purchase."

Charge (Finally) Goes Away

Cole turned off the phone's voice and data service, but the account remained active, and charges reappeared. For seven months she asked Sprint--to no avail--for information on who was billing her each month and how to stop the charge. In December, Sprint finally told Cole the charge came from a company called Blinko. Blinko, an American subsidiary of Italy's Buongiorno entertainment conglomerate, offers ringtones, games, SMS jokes, and wallpapers to cellular customers.

When Cole called Blinko, the company initially declined to issue a refund, explaining that while she paid the bill, she wasn't the one who signed up for the service. She told Blinko the phone had been deactivated for the past seven months. In the end, Blinko agreed to refund her $70.

Blinko told PC World that it grants full refunds to customers who allege that somebody else had used their phone number to sign up for a Blinko service.

When we followed up with Cole, she said she had finally received a letter confirming cancellation of the service. Sprint had also agreed to refund her $151.75.

Sprint can't explain how this happened to Cole. Sprint says it refunds disputed third-party charges, and that the billing party is supposed to be identified on account statements, especially after a recent update to its billing system. Sprint spokesperson Roni Singleton says the company is investigating Cole's case. "Something clearly went wrong here," Singleton says.

Where Did It Come From? (Case No. 2)

Glenn McDonald, a Rosedale, Maryland, software engineer who uses Verizon Wireless, had a similar problem. He says he spotted a $10 charge on his September bill that he couldn't identify. He suspected it was something his teenage son may have signed up for when he tried to download a ringtone, though his son couldn't confirm that. In any case, what McDonald ended up with was weekly trivia questions sent via text messages to his phone.

Verizon initially told him it didn't know who was responsible for the charge, then later said it was Blinko. McDonald called Blinko and, after multiple tries on its automated phone system, eventually got hold of a customer service rep who agreed to cancel the account. However, a similar charge showed up in December, McDonald says, and Verizon told him the charge had all along been from MobileSidewalk, which also delivers games, videos, ringtones, and the like to cellular users. Verizon told him it would credit him $10 for the error. McDonald then called MobileSidewalk and cancelled the account.

Verizon says that it does not discuss specific customer issues, citing its privacy policy.

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