From slamming to cramming and everything in between, con artists and companies have tapped into telephone bills as a place to bilk consumers out of money they shouldn't owe. Learn to spot the most common phone frauds.
- You've been "slammed" when your phone service has been changed without your consent. It can happen with long distance service and, as competition increases for local and local toll, for those services as well.
- Sometimes slamming results from company error; for example, the wrong number being typed into the system. But in many cases it's a deliberate attempt by one company to "steal" the customer from another.
- The slammer falsely claims that you have agreed to change your service provider and asks your local phone company, which performs the actual switch, to make the change.
- If your telephone company is switched to another company without your consent (this could be your long distance company, local toll, or even local service if there is competition in your area), you have the right to be switched back without being charged any switching fees. Changing your service without your permission is called "slamming," and it's against the law.
- If you were slammed on or after November 28, 2000, new rules from the Federal Communications Commission apply. To make the most of your rights, read your phone bill carefully as soon as you get it and act quickly if you discover you've been slammed. You're in the best position if you haven't yet paid the slammer.
- Call the company that "slammed" you and say you are disputing the switch. Its number should appear on the same page as the charges on your bill. If you haven't paid the bill, demand that the charges be removed for up to the first 30 days of service.
- Call the company you were switched from to arrange to switch back with no switching fee and re-enroll in any special program or calling plan you had. If you haven't paid the bill and received service from the slammer for more than 30 days, arrange to be rebilled by your original company for any calls from day 31 on. If you have paid the bill, ask your original company to try to recover the refund to which you are entitled.
- Call your local phone company if it provided the billing for the slammer to notify it about the problem and that you are disputing the charges.
- Notify the appropriate agency. If you have resolved your slamming complaint, be sure to mention that when you report the problem to the agency. Your information is still useful for tracking patterns of slamming abuses. If you haven't been able to resolve the complaint, the agency will try to help you.
- Include your name and address, telephone number, email address, the name of the company that slammed you, the name of the company you were slammed from, a complete explanation of what happened and when, how much you have paid the slammer, if anything, and the solution you want if the problem hasn't been resolved. If you are mailing your complaint, enclose copies, not originals, of any bills you are disputing.
- You should report slamming promptly, even if the slammer or your original company assures you that everything has been resolved.
- You can report slamming to your state utility department.
- You've been "crammed" when charges for miscellaneous services that you never agreed to buy have been added to your phone bill. Some examples are phone-related services such as voice mail, paging, or personal 800 numbers. But you might also find charges for other types of services on your bill, such as Internet access, club memberships, and even dating services!
- The crammer arranges to bill you, usually through your local phone company, by falsely claiming that you authorized the new services.
- These charges might appear on your bill just once, or they might recur on every bill - a good reason to look closely at each bill before you pay it.
- Information and entertainment provided by pay-per-call services are accessed through 900 numbers, some 800 numbers, and even some international phone numbers. They can be recorded weather reports, stock quotes, group chat lines, psychic services, reports about a company's complaint record from a Better Business Bureau - just about anything.
- When you call 900 numbers or 800 numbers that provide pay-per-call services, you pay a charge that is set by the service provider, not your phone company. Services provided through international phone numbers result in charges at whatever the rate would normally be for calling that country from your phone.
- Dishonest pay-per-call service providers don't disclose, or misrepresent, the cost of their services. They may also misrepresent the services that they offer. You may be tricked into dialing pay-per-call services by following instructions to punch in a "personal activation code" that actually connects you to a pay-per-call line, or you may be switched to a pay-per-call line without knowing it. Some consumers report being charged for pay-per-call services even when their phones were never used to dial them.
Collect call scams
- Some fraudulent companies attempt to charge consumers for pay-per-call services by masquerading as collect calls. They use common names such as "Jennifer," hoping that the person who answers will accept the call. Once the call is accepted the person typically hears a recorded message offering some type of service or soliciting for a so-called charity.
- If you accept the call you will be billed for it even if you are not interested in the service or in making a donation.
- Some consumers report that they have been billed for these types of collect calls even though they refused to accept them.
- Consumers also complain about being charged excessive rates for making collect calls from some pay phones.
Calling card fraud
- When you use a calling card in a public place - an airport, a train station, a pay-phone on the street - someone may be looking over your shoulder to see the account number and PIN number that you dial. They might even be far away, using binoculars or the telephoto lens of a camera to watch you.
- Once they have your numbers, people can use them to make calls on your account or sell them to others for that purpose. It isn't necessary for them to actually have your card.
How to avoid falling for phone fraud
- To avoid slamming or cramming, look closely at contest entry forms or other forms you fill out. They may include an agreement to change service providers or add new services to your bill.
- If you get a telemarketing call concerning phone service, don't agree to anything on the spot. Ask the company to send you written information. This way you can evaluate the offer without pressure and to confirm the identity of any caller who claims to represent your regular local or long-distance company.
- Use an answering machine, voice mail, and/or caller ID to screen calls so that you decide which callers that you want to talk to.
- Don't accept collect calls from people you don't know.
- Your local phone company can provide a free 900 number block to prevent anyone from dialing a 900 number from your phone. This can help you avoid some pay-per-call abuses.
- Don't make or return calls to numbers you don't recognize. Some international numbers look just like domestic US numbers, but international calls can cost much more. If you are not sure whether a number is in the US or another country, dial 00 and ask the long-distance operator where you would be calling.
- Consider getting a "PIC freeze" on your local toll and long distance service. This free service from your local phone company prevents any switching of your long distance or local toll company unless you tell your local phone company directly that it's OK to make the change.
- Be aware that the PIC freeze is not absolutely foolproof. Most major phone companies sell service at wholesale rates to other companies who resell it to consumers under their own brand names. If you are illegally switched to a company that is a "reseller" of service from your original company, the system may not recognize that there has been a switch. The telephone companies are trying to solve this technical problem.
- Ask your local phone company about any blocking that may be available to prevent miscellaneous services from other companies from being crammed onto your phone bill without your consent.
- Prevent calling card fraud by using your body to block the key pad when you are using your calling card at a public phone. If you are giving your account number and PIN to an operator, speak softly so no one around you will hear.