This covers a topic about which I wrote earlier this week, but is expanded and completely revised, and includes actions that you can take if you find yourself in this situation. I know that this will not be as well received as the installment last week, but this is an important topic, (although not a popular one), and is part of our culture at present. I am talking about telephone billing scams, often called cramming, and they are common.
This incident is from personal experience, and recent at that. Cramming is the addition of charges on one's residential or wireless telephone bills that were not authorized by the owner of the account, or the addition of charges that were unwittingly authorized by the owner of the account. In my case, it was the former, twice.
Cramming is possible because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) still allows third party billing to private telephone numbers. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also has some responsibility in this area. When cramming occurs, some third party which has access to your telephone number (and if you are not unlisted, EVERYONE has access to it) bills you for some sort of service (usually) or good (not as often). Several companies are notorious for it. I am going to name names, and if they want to sue me, fine. I speak the truth and besides, there is not much blood in this particular turnip.
Another thing that promotes cramming is that most people do not look at their telephone bills very closely. This is just human nature, but someone that I know has eyes like a hawk. She noticed that she was getting a $14.99 per month charge from an outfit called ILD Teleservices, with no explanation as to what it included. She called them and they told her that I had used her telephone number to subscribe some sort of a music download service. Well, I have to admit that I love good music, but the most modern technology that I own is a CD player for music, other than this computer, and I go only to free services like UTube to look for music videos (the next installment of this series for a particular song by The Who uses that site). The ILD representative finally told her it was a ringtone download service.
That is all well and good, but the ringtone that is standard on my cellular telephone is just fine. As long as I can hear it to answer the call, I really do not care what it sounds like. To give the devil his due, ILD agreed to credit the charges for September and October back to her AT&T account, but that it would take a couple of billing cycles to do so. By the way, AT&T told her that it was her problem with ILD and that they could not intervene. She got me involved because the ILD representative indicated that it was my computer, out of state, that authorized the charges. Obviously, there was no way for the representative to know that.
Well, I did not authorize any such charge. The Geek in me makes me rather cautious about where I click my mouse. So, I called ILD and talked with a representative, after quite a long hold time. He indicated that the charges were indeed going to be credited back and that I probably had "clicked somewhere that I should not have" to authorize the charges. After speaking with him for quite some time, he told me that the original biller was an outfit called US Music Find. I thanked him for being so helpful and told him that my complaint should be with them and not ILD, and that I would try to contact US Music Find the next day. He told me something that did not register consciously at the time, but I remember what he said. He said, "Well, OK, but just be careful when you do."
I looked up the outfit on the net and got a contact number, and called it the next day. Of course, I went straightaway to an automated answering voice mailbox, but this one was strange. There was the obligatory greeting, and then the list of options. There was ONLY one option. That option was as follows:
If you are calling about unauthorized charges to your telephone account, press "99" at the prompt. Then enter the ten digit telephone number that is receiving unauthorized charges for full credit.
Now I knew what the ILD guy meant. I strongly suspect that if I had entered that number again, it would only have encouraged them to continue cramming. It is sort of like spam email, when you respond to be removed from the spam list. All that does is confirm that they have found a valid email address. I just hung up after that, not about to give them that telephone number again. But you know the scientist in me. I thrive on facts, so I started rooting around for information about those two firms.
It did not take long to find some extremely interesting information. It turns out that ILD is a really big firm that does third party billing for LOTS of companies, some of them very shady. As a matter of fact, ILD is pretty shady itself, having settled with at least two states and the federal government for cramming. But it gets more interesting. ILD is a big government contractor as well, and also provides lots of long distance calling services in places like airports and train stations.
If you have ever had a friend or relative call you collect from jail or prison, the chances are good that ILD was the intermediary in the call, and they have a HUGE markup for it. Of course, the share their revenue with the governmental bodies that gave them the contract for providing the services, so there is absolutely no incentive on the part of the governmental agencies to keep them in check. It is sort of like, ummmm, mutual back scratching (yeah, that's the term) so that both ILD AND the governmental bodies get money. Since this money is not appropriated, it can be used for many different purposes by the governmental entity. Most folks do not realize that appropriated funds are subject to MUCH more stringent regulations and law than are nonappropriated funds.
Even the military has a distinction between AF and NAF monies. For example, such things like the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation units in the military use NAF funds, so they have to fund themselves by running canteens, golf courses, bars, and so forth. The monies that they receive are reinvested into more MWR activities, and this is a good thing. Our warfighters deserve creature services at reasonable costs. The point that I am making is that funds that are appropriated by law are subject to much more stringent standards, and they are so severe that if you happen to drive a government car paid for with appropriated funds to go to lunch, even if on base, you may be dismissed, suspended, or even brought up on criminal charges. With a NAF vehicle, all is well.
OK, back to these cramming folks. Not long after I started my search, I found a website that mentioned both ILD AND US Music Find. Here is the URL for that site. I was astonished to see the exact same case that the former we had played out, over and over, and very often involving the very US Music Find outfit. By the way, this site was just the forth "hit" in my Dogpile (actually a very good meta search engine) search.
If you are not feeling like going to the site, there are 324 pages of complaints against ILD, with five to ten posts per page. Conservative maths indicate that there are over 2000 complaints that folks felt important enough to post to the consumer site. Since way fewer than 10% of people take the trouble to do that, there must be at least 20,000 complaints.
The recurring theme is that the victims usually did NOT click onto some obscure site that authorized the biller. It is just plain identity theft. Perhaps a few folks have done it, but I never did. Anyway, why would I put in a telephone number that I no longer owned? The guy from ILD put a little light on that, and said that their customers often look for valid telephone numbers and just randomly start charging them because the folks being billed often do not look very closely at their telephone bills, since they are often complicated.
They did not count on my associate, with the eyes of a hawk and the soul of social worker. She found the bogus charge, and now I am publicizing it. Again, to be fair, ILD agreed to credit the charges for the past two months, but they usually do not credit ones that are very old. Thus, you have to have the same hawk eyes that she has. Until better federal statutes are passed to ban cramming, you have to watch out for yourself. Here are my suggestions.
- Examine ALL of your bills carefully. It will take a minute longer, but it is important. These thugs seem to be targeting telephone bills mostly, so concentrate on them. This is because of the third party billing that is allowed for telephone companies. I would be surprised if such a charge showed up on your electric bill, but that does not mean that your electric company can not make a mistake and overcharge you. Just look at your bills carefully.
- If you find something that you do not understand, call your service provider and ask for an explanation. If they can not explain it, ask for a supervisor.
- As I understand, and please the legal types out there correct me if I am incorrect, your local provider can not do much to reverse the charges, and you will be late or deficient with your payment if you do not pay in full. My understanding is that there are few if any consumer protections on telephone bills, so be prepared to wait for months to get back your money.
- Get aggressive with that third party billing outfit. From my experience, they will cave fast if you have a good recollection about what you did online insofar as signing up for bogus services. Your internet history files might be useful, so not delete them.
- If the third party biller is not cooperative, threaten both the third party billing outfit AND the the company who submitted the bill to the third party billing outfit to go to the Attorney General in your state. Also, if your telephone bill has calls outside of your state, threaten them with the Federal Communication Commission.
- Just keep going. They will finally credit your account. NEVER accept anything less, because they will still be making money off of you illegally and consider you an easy mark.
- Please report your experiences here. I have a personal goal to see that these kinds of unethical companies mend their ways or be prosecuted.
Well, this is not very entertaining, I realize. I have been collecting freely available clips by The Who and many cover bands to talk about one Peter Townshend's very best songs, and performances by the entire band. You are welcome to comment with what you think is the name of the work. I shall publish it one week from tonight. Hint: It is NOT Tommy, and dates from earlier.
Featured at TheStarsHollowGazette.com. Crossposted at Docudharma.com