Originally created 09/13/98

'Cramming' charges hidden in phone bill



NEW YORK -- If the phone bill feels a little thicker these days it could be that you've had charges for services you never ordered "crammed" onto the bill.

In fact, during the first six months of the year, the Federal Trade Commission received 6,000 complaints of cramming. And those are only the people who noticed the charges.

Although the charges sometimes appears as a fee for calling an 800 or 900 number, they often are listed as "miscellaneous."

Cramming has become more widespread as the deregulated telephone industry has been opened up to hundreds of new players, big and small.

Scam artists have figured out they can bury bogus charges in telephone bills, and that people either won't notice them, or will get frustrated trying to fix the problem and will give up and pay.

Crammers get to individual phone bills through billing aggregators, the middlemen who take information from small companies that provide services such as phone and voicemail and turn it over to your local phone company to include in your phone bills.

Cramming victims are billed -- usually in small amounts, from $5 to $40 -- for any of a variety of services such as club memberships, astrology or matchmaking advice.

They may be billed for enhancements to their telephone service, like voice mail, fax or Internet access, which they never ordered.

Carolyn Heisler of Washington was not about to pay two months' charges totaling $30.90 to a company she had never heard of, Integretel Inc. According to her complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission, Ms. Heisler called the 800 number for Integretel listed on her Bell Atlantic phone bill.

Ms. Heisler was repeatedly told by a computer voice that her home number -- the one that Integretel had billed -- was invalid.

"Apparently, my phone number is valid to their system only as a recipient of their charges," Ms. Heisler wrote the FCC.

After several calls to Bell Atlantic, Ms. Heisler succeeded in getting the charges removed.

But she was told that Bell Atlantic, even though it has insisted that its billing companies cut off 50 companies suspected of cramming, could not prevent mysterious charges from appearing on future bills.

Integretel said it billed Ms. Heisler on behalf of United Services Telecommunications, and no longer handles its billing.

The problem has gotten so bad that the FTC has taken seven companies to court. It has won temporary injunctions against Allstate Comunications Inc.; Interactive Audiotext Services Inc.; American Billing & Collection (ABC Services) and US Interstate Distributing Inc.

The FTC has complaints pending against International Telemedia Associates Inc., Online Consulting Group Inc., and Hold Billing Services Ltd.

Cramming was the subject of a Senate public hearing in July and two bills introduced this summer in the House of Representatives.

State regulators have also acted. New York has sued three companies, New Jersey has sued two -- and at least two other states -- Texas and Alabama -- have fined crammers.