CUB urges vigilance against cell bill 'cramming'

CUB urges vigilance against cell bill 'cramming'

CHAMPAIGN — If your cellphone bill looks a bit higher than it should, take a closer look, consumer advocates advise.

The number of fraudulent fees third-party companies have charged to Illinois cellphone bills — a practice known as "cramming" — has nearly doubled in a year, according to Citizens Utility Board, a consumer advocate group based in Chicago.

A new state law set to take effect Jan. 1 will ban most third-party charges from appearing on land line phone bills, but cellphone bills are still up for grabs, CUB Environmental Outreach Coordinator Laura Goldberg warned Tuesday morning.

CUB and the wireless industry research firm Validas analyzed nearly 5 million lines, 200,000 in Illinois, and found the percentage of third-party charges in Illinois that were fraudulent grew from 26 percent in August 2010 through July 2011 to 51 percent in August 2011 through July 2012.

Nationally, cramming fees rose from 39 percent to 44 percent during that period, they also found.

For their research, CUB and Validas used cellphone bills that had been uploaded to their websites by consumers seeking analysis of their charges, said CUB spokesman Patrick Deignan.

Cramming fees — which include vaguely worded charges such as "premium texting" and "data" and "download charge" — arrive on phone bills courtesy of third-party companies that gain access through text messages claiming prize offerings, ringtone downloads, website offerings and other cellphone extras, according to CUB.

Cramming charges averaged $3.76 a month in Illinois and $5.10 a month in the U.S., the group found.

Some customers get crammed when they respond to these offers, but even some who don't wind up being charged.

Goldberg said crammers succeed because their charges aren't easy to spot on phone bills.

"Unless you're looking for these, they're very easy to miss," she said.

Expanding the numbers to all Illinois' 12.3 million cellphone users, CUB projects cramming could have a $1.4 million annual impact.

CUB advises consumers to protect themselves by taking a close look at their cellphone bills each month.

Other steps to take:

— Protect your cellphone number by registering it on the Do Not Call list at http://www.DoNotCall.gov and beware of online contests or "free offers that require giving out your cellphone number."

— Ask your carrier if free fraud protection is available.

— Beware of questionable texts. The website http://www.SMSwatchdog.com can help identify questionable messages.

If you suspect you've been crammed, dispute the charge with the third-party company if you can find the company's phone number on the bill.

— Call your cellphone company and say you're paying only the undisputed amount of your bill.

— Consider filing a complaint with the Illinois attorney general's office at http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov. Or call 1-800-243-0618.

See CUB's "StopCramming Center" for more information at http://www.CitizensUtilityBoard.org.

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