FCC Gives Tips for Avoiding Phone Bill 'Cramming' Charges

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The Federal Communications Commission today released a tip sheet to help consumers and businesses avoid paying unauthorized charges on their monthly phone bills.

The FCC says that "cramming," which basically means adding unauthorized charges to phone bills, is illegal and that carriers who engage in cramming can expect to be punished with heavy fines. Last week the FCC's Enforcement Bureau proposed slapping $11.7 million in penalties against four local telephone companies that the commission says levied unlawful fees on their customers.

[RELATED: FCC chair dings carriers over 'bill shock']

In conjunction with this, the FCC put out several tips for how to identify cramming charges and how to report them to both your carrier and the FCC if necessary. The FCC says the first step is to know what to look for if you suspect you've been illegally charged. Most cramming charges are added fees on your phone bill for services that you didn't authorize, such as long-distance calling or voicemail. The FCC notes that these charges are often hidden in 20-page phone bills and can be given cryptic labels such as "monthly fee," "service fee" or "other fees."

During his remarks on the FCC's new anti-cramming program today, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told a story about a woman in Missouri who had received long-distance calling fees on her phone bill even though she had never authorized the service. When she asked the company to send her the authorization form she supposedly signed, the company sent her a form with a different person's name, address and telephone number. Even then, Genachowski said, the company was only willing to reimburse her for a fraction of the faulty charges.

The FCC says that stories like these are reasons for consumers to carefully go over their monthly phone bills and ask themselves key questions about whether they recognize all of the companies listed on the bill, whether they received services from those companies and whether the bill includes charges for calls they didn't make. The FCC says that if you come across a company whose name you don't recognize, ask the phone company to provide a detailed explanation of why the charge is there, including both the nature of the company making the charge and the service the company supposedly provided.

The FCC recommends first contacting the phone company directly to address faulty charges. But if the company proves unresponsive, the commission recommends filing a formal complaint against the company with either a state public service commission, the Federal Trade Commission or the FCC itself.

Over the past year the FCC has been holding a series of hearings about unexpected fees and charges that customers have been exposed to on their phone and Internet bills. Late last year the FCC announced a settlement with Verizon in which the carrier agreed to pay the commission $25 million as well as more than $50 million in refunds to customers who were billed for inaccurate data charges. The FCC also released a survey last year conducted by research firms Abt/SRBI and Princeton Survey Research Associates that found that 17% of U.S. cellphone users said that their bills had "increased suddenly from one month to the next [even if they] did not change the calling or texting plan" they subscribed to.

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This story, "FCC Gives Tips for Avoiding Phone Bill 'Cramming' Charges" was originally published by Network World.

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