Cell phone ‘cramming:’ Are you a victim of sham charges?

Cell phone ‘cramming:’ Are you a victim of sham charges?

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Are you reading your cell phone bills closely?

If not, you could be passing over some easy-to-miss charges on your bill for services that you never authorized. Consumer groups say the scam is costing cell phone users up to $59 million a year.

Michael Keller is one of those people. The Park Ridge father of three feels like he was mugged for $500 through his cell phone bill. He didn't realize until last month that he was being charged $50 a month over the course of $10 months for services he says he never ordered or received.

Keller may have been a victim of "cramming," in which a third-party company slaps an unauthorized charge on your bill ranging from $1.99 to $19.99. Scam artists hide the fraudulent charges in a forest of other fees knowing cell phone bills can be confusing to read.

Jim Chilsen with the non-profit consumer group, Citizens Utility Board (CUB) says it's become a fast growing problem

"We did a study that shows then number of cramming charges on Illinois cell phones have doubled from one year to the next," Chilsen says.

There are several easy ways the scam artists can get on your bill.

"Maybe you go to a website and you want to get a free download, a supposedly free download, and it requires you to give your cell phone number which is a big no-no and suddenly you end up getting this charge and you find out this wasn't free," Chilsen explains.

Replying to a text message from an unfamiliar number can also enable cramming. Keller says neither scenario applied to his situation and still doesn't know how cramming happened to him.

This year, Illinois became the second state to make cramming illegal, but the law only applies to landlines--not cell phones--which are much more complicated to regulate.

"Cell phone related commerce has absolutely exploded," Chilsen says. "You can now buy coffee to your iPhone bill and even give to charity through your cell phone."

CUB has been trying to urge cell phone carriers to participate in tracking down the crammers, but Chilsen says they don't have any incentive to help because most profit from the third-party charges.

FOX 32 reached out to the three largest cell phone carriers to find out what they're doing about cramming.

In an email, Verizon Wireless wrote, "we don't not believe [cramming] is a growing issue" but once customers immediately contact the company, "we'll help them opt out of that service."

Both Verizon and Sprint say customers can block some third-party billing, including premium messaging.

A spokesman for AT&T says "we allow customers to block third-party charges at no cost...and we alert customers via text message each time a third party charge is placed on their AT&T bill."

Keller, an AT&T customer, says he never received such text messages.

The best way to protect yourself is to read every bill and look out for charges with vague descriptions such as "membership fee," "simple as data," and "premium messages." Another red flag is being asked for your cell phone number online. If you see a suspicious charge, try calling the company behind the charge and call your phone company.

"Call the company and say ‘I am not paying these charges,' and say you're filing a complaint with AT&T's general office," Chilsen recommends.

Keller says he only got back $100 of the $500 he was charged after a lengthy and frustrating call.

"When I was talking to a customer service representative, and she said she couldn't do anything for me, I said ‘let me talk to your manager,' Keller says. And I said ‘you are aware of this issue right?' She said ‘I have no idea what you're talking about.'

If you're wondering how much of a cut the phone companies are getting from these third-parties, it's been reported anywhere between 30 and 50 percent. When asked exactly how much, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon did not answer.

If you think you've been 'crammed,' visit the Citizen's Utility Board website.

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