Ways to dispute unexpected phone charges

December 20, 2007 10:35:10 AM PST
We've all been the target of sales pitches and you can always say no, but a lot of people are saying "yes" when they don't even know it.

If you've ever noticed your phone bill was a little bit higher than usual, you might blame it on those extra long distance calls. But if you take a closer look, you might find some unexplained charges you don't have to pay.

Deborah Boykin never paid much attention to her AT&T phone bill until a couple weeks ago.

"Let me just eliminate some services on my phone bill that I wasn't using like priority ringing," said Deborah Boykin of San Leandro.

It was then that she noticed a mysterious charge for about $29 dollars

"When I looked at the bill it said enhanced services billing so I said what is this," said Boykin.

She called the 800 number next to it.

The customer service agent could not explain exactly what it was," said Boykin.

So Deborah called AT&T, and the agent told her it was a "masked" charge -- as in "hidden," and whatever it was, she'd been paying it every month for a year. And since they were not AT&T bills, she'd have to call the billing company, enhanced services billing.

Deborah called 7 On Your Side, and it turned out the answer was buried on page eight of her phone bill.

The charges came from two companies. She never heard of either one.

"My Infoguard voicemail, Idetheft. What is Voicemail Idetheft and what is My Product Imail voicemail," said Boykin.

Deborah says she never ordered any of them. If true, she'd been a victim of cramming. That's when unauthorized charges are crammed on your phone bill.

The California Public Utilities Commission has received 1,800 cramming complaints over the past two years.

But how did Deborah's charges get there?

"Consumers need to be so aware of what they may be inadvertently signing up for,'' said attorney from the Utility Reform Network Bill Nusbaum.

Bill Nusbaum is an attorney with the utility reform network. He says what might have happened is Deborah unwittingly signed up for services. Consumers may do that when they go online, call an 800 number, or enter a contest.

"Unbeknownst to you the fine print may in fact say you're really signing up for a service," said Nusbaum.

Enhanced Services Billing of Texas known as ESBI does billing for the two companies on Deborah's bill.

Did they cram on Deborah's bill? ESBI did not return our calls for comment.

Also not talking is "My I-products I-mail." but this company, "My Infoguard" of Florida, told us Deborah did fill out this form online in September 2006 ordering voicemail service. The company says Deborah clicked on this box to confirm the order.

Company attorney Andrew Lustigman said My Infoguard is not involved in cramming, and any such claim would be "outrageous."

But Deborah is certain she did not deliberately sign up for those services.

"Supposed to have an 800 email and voicemail and Imail number. I have none of these things. Beware of what you do on the computer and check your monthly bills," said Boykin.

AT&T said it has a policy to send charges back to the billing company if consumers say they didn't order the services. It credited Deborah's account for the full $316 dollars she said were unauthorized charges.

And the two smaller companies did cancel her account.

Enhanced Services Billing has an unsatisfactory record with the Better Business Bureau, with 151 complaints over the past three years from customers claiming unauthorized billing.

The Federal Trade Commission charged ESBI with the same thing in 2001. Those charges were settled with a pledge to stop unauthorized billing.


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