Don’t let mobile phone providers sock you with hidden fees

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 12, 2014, at 10:52 a.m.

Click image to access FTC page

Maine customers of AT&T Mobility LLC are among many across the country who stand to receive refunds from the mobile phone company. Last week, AT&T agreed to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission that the company had improperly “crammed” charges onto bills for services customers did not approve.

Current and former customers of AT&T who paid unauthorized charges after Jan. 1, 2009, can apply for refunds. You may file a claim online by visiting www.ftc.gov/att. You may call 1-877-819-9692 with questions, but claims are not being taken over the phone; you may request a paper claim form to mail in.

You need to file a claim by May 1 of next year. And don’t plan on spending any refund money right away. The FTC has hired Epiq Systems to handle the refund requests and says you should not expect to see a refund check for at least nine months.

Cramming charges are listed on phone bills for third-party services, including digital wallpapers, ringtones and text message subscriptions ranging from horoscopes to gossip about celebrities. The charges range up to $9.99 per month per service; AT&T hauled in millions for those third-party services and kept 35 percent of the take, according to the FTC complaint.

The billing was deceptive, according to that complaint, because many charges were hidden. In some cases they were listed as “AT&T Monthly Subscriptions,” making it appear that the charges were part of the company’s phone service costs. In the “Service Summary” section of the bills, FTC says the company lumped in the unauthorized charges, again making it appear to be part of the company’s wireless service fees.

The settlement requires AT&T to get explicit consent from customers before billing them for third-party charges. If you dispute such a charge, AT&T will give you a refund unless it can prove you consented to the charge. AT&T will still offer the option of blocking all third-party charges.

Other carriers offer free blocking; check with your provider about ways to block charges.

The settlement totals $105 million, with $80 million going to the FTC for the rebates. There’s another $20 million in penalties to the states and the District of Columbia, and $5 million in penalties goes to the FTC.

The settlement is the largest of seven mobile cramming cases the agency has brought since 2013. For a company that reported total second-quarter revenues this year of more than $32 billion, it shouldn’t hurt AT&T much. The FTC filed a complaint against T-Mobile in July, a case that is ongoing.

The FTC says you might avoid cramming charges by:

— Not entering your mobile phone numbers on unsecured websites.

— Looking over your future phone bills closely for unauthorized charges; unsolicited text messages could be a signal you’re being crammed.

— Looking for fees that aren’t specific (minimum use fee, member/activation fee, subscription); if you’re not sure what a fee is for, ask your carrier for an explanation.

If another carrier’s bill contains unauthorized charges, you can file a complaint with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. File online at www.maine.gov/mpuc or call 1-800-452-4699.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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