If you notice an unexplained charge on your phone bill, you may have been the victim of a practice known as "cramming." Companies that engage in "cramming" bill you for services that were never ordered, authorized, received and/or used. Traditional sources of cramming include toll-free 800 numbers, club memberships or contest forms. This scam has now found its way on the Internet — another "old wine in a new bottle." More and more consumers report that they're being billed for Internet-related services, often found on phone bills and credit card statements that they've never ordered. What to watch for:
Free Website Offer
The Offer — You or your business receives a phone call from someone offering you a free website (or free online "Yellow Page" advertisement). The smooth-talking salesperson indicates that it is a trial subscription (likely thirty days) and you don't need to do anything but call to authorize continuation of the service once the free period is over. You're told that you may sample the website or other service during the trial period, and are under no obligation to continue with the service once the free trial period is over. Consumers report that they're only asked to confirm information over the phone, oftentimes only their date of birth or address, for "verification purposes."
The Result — Once the trial period is over, the business bills you through your phone bill or credit card statement — often for $29.99 or more each month. If you notice the charge and call to inquire, you might hear a recording of your telephone conversation with the fast-talking salesperson — a recording in which you answered "yes" to what amounted to a subscription service. You may not have accepted the trial offer or may even have hung up on the salesperson, but you may still be billed by the company months later.
Adult Websites and Auto-Dialers
The Pop-up — Consumers (or their children) are increasingly finding themselves confronted with stubborn pop-up ads while surfing the Internet. In some cases, pop-up ads may be more than just advertising. Some consumers report that they encountered pop-up ads that could not be closed until "OK" was clicked – only to find out later that the click authorized an auto-dialer to be installed on their computer.
The Result — For many consumers, these auto-dialers have turned out to be costly mistakes. Complaints relay that auto-dialers disconnected consumers' computers from their authorized ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and routed the computers to access companies from remote locations that charge upwards of six dollars per minute of use. These companies often route the computer to pornographic websites. In some instances, consumers have indicated that they had no knowledge of the disconnection from their ISP or the subsequent access of the auto-dialer — until they received a phone bill for hundreds of dollars. Many of the firms that charge for this service are unwilling to provide refunds or waive fees for unauthorized auto-dialing.
What Can You Do to Protect Yourself From "Internet Cramming"?
- Carefully monitor your monthly phone and credit card bills. Look for any unexplained service charges and promptly contact your phone or credit card company if you have questions regarding your bill.
- Be wary of telemarketing calls offering "free" or "trial" Internet services. Do not agree to anything over the telephone. Request information in writing prior to any approval. If you are receiving unwanted telemarketing calls from firms offering such services, clearly state that you do not accept telephone solicitation offers and request to be placed on their "Do Not Call" list. Contact the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov for information regarding the National Do Not Call Registry. (http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/donotcall/index.html).
- Protect your computer. Research firewall systems and keep your system updated with any new "patches" or virus protectors. Be careful about downloading files from the Internet — the file may contain an auto-dialer and unless you read all the fine print, you may not be aware of it. Make sure your children know to avoid clicking on pop-up ads; be suspicious of pop-ups that require users to be over eighteen or cannot easily be closed down. Consult your phone company regarding placing an international block on your computer line.
If You Are the Victim of "Internet Cramming"
If you think that you have been a victim of Internet cramming, contact your phone company. You may be directed to contact the billing party — take notes of the response and any promises to refund or remove fees. If the company claims to have a recording of someone authorizing a service, ask for a copy of the recording.
If you are unable to resolve your complaint, file a complaint with our office.
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