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Cramming law’s effectiveness partly depends on you

Pay attention to monthly bills

Published: Friday, Jan. 25, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

Phone users who have opened their monthly bills only to find a string of additional charges know how pervasive “cramming” has become.

The practice – in which a third party will add charges to phone bills for services that were never requested, or were part of ultra-fine print – is a multibillion-dollar industry each year.

Reports indicate telephone companies place at least 300 million third-party charges on customers’ bills every year.

It can be tough to catch for a number of reasons. Foremost is that there is no single common “cram.” It can be for long-distance service or club memberships or for daily text messages of jokes or horoscopes.

It can also be weeks before charges are noticed, if at all. Monthly utility bills tend to be of a nature that they are received and paid without much scrutiny.

Although it had its origins among landline telephones, it has adapted and moved as more people abandon their home phones for cell phones. Reports of online cramming are also on the rise.

On Jan. 1, Illinois became only the second state in the nation to ban cramming over landlines. House Bill 5211 might never have caught the attention of lawmakers were it not for the guidance of Attorney General Lisa Madigan and her office.

But legislation cannot solve the problem itself. Consumers should take responsibility for knowing the tell-tale fingerprints crammers often leave behind.

For starters, pay attention to your bill each month. According to the Federal Trade Commission, there are some generic-sounding phrases that should raise red flags: Things like “member fee” or “activation” warrant further explanation.

Also, keep watch for strange area codes, especially 011 or 500 or 900, which denote a number that typically has a per-minute charge involved. Look closely at charges under the “miscellaneous” or “third-party charges” section of your telephone bill.

Be willing to ask questions.

House Bill 5211 is an example of consumer protection that is needed in a world in which technology and its associated con games grow with exponential speed.

It is just as important, though, that consumers be aware of the schemes and scams that are out there and know how to avoid being taken.

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