Are you being scammed by your cellular service provider?

Posted: March 20, 2012 in Tech Life

I was at home tonight, enjoying the rumbles and flashes of the first thunderstorm (on the eve) of Spring, when I received a text message. I reluctantly pulled my phone out of my pocket, fully expecting it to be one of my kids asking me to come and help them change a tire in the downpour. Much to my relief, it was just an innocuous message from some silly third party, offering 3 trivia alerts a week for just $9.99 per month, followed by the standard “Reply STOP to Cancel” message that I’ve seen a hundred times. Though I am quite a trivia buff, the thought of spending $10 a month for 12 tidbits of trivia seemed outrageous. I immediately replied with my “STOP” message and considered following up with “DAMMIT!” but managed to restrain myself.

Then something ominous occurred to me. My head started filling up with “what ifs?”

What if this was a scam?

What if my phone had just been hacked somehow?

What if I replied incorrectly?

After all, the text actually said “Reply STOP to Can For Help call 18888906150.” Did I just get tricked into accepting their service? After about an hour on Google, I had determined that there was a pretty good likelihood that I had.

Next step – call my cell carrier. I called ATT Mobile and spoke with a very pleasant young woman who assured me that she could help me with this. After accessing my account, she confirmed my suspicion . . . I had indeed been scammed. No wait, she didn’t say “scammed,” she said “crammed.” I asked if there was a difference. She said that their term for this is “cramming.” Again I pressed for an explanation as to the difference between a “cram” and a “scam.” All I could get out of her was that this is different because it is done by 3rd party vendors. Huh?

“So, cramming,” I asked, “is it ever legitimate?” “Well . . . . no,” she replied. “Why then, don’t you just block it all?” The conversation quickly went downhill from there. She told me that they can’t block “crammers” and that they have no control over them and how this has even happened to her personally. Somehow that didn’t make me feel any better.

So, the wheels were really turning now. I asked for an explanation for why they would approve of fraudulent activity on their network – back to the cycle of non-answers;

ATT:    “Again, Mr. Peterson, we don’t consider these scammers, some of them provide legitimate services.”

ME:     “Like what? . . . wait . . . so, I wasn’t scammed? You already admitted that this is NEVER legitimate!”

ATT:    “Sir, I have told you that we will take this charge off of your bill.”

ME:     “If I hadn’t caught this, ATT would be collecting the money for this, right?”

ATT:    “Well, yes, it gets billed on your account.”

ME:     “And I pay YOU for this ‘cramming?’”

ATT:    “Sir, I have already credited your account for the charges.” “Is there anything else I can help you with tonight?

I was just getting warmed up . . .

ME:     “Yes there is. Could you tell me how much ATT gets from these charges?”

ATT:    “Sir, I told you. We are refunding your money, so we don’t keep anything.”

ME:     “How about the person who doesn’t catch this in time and pays his bill?”

ATT:    “Then we pay the 3rd party provider.”

ME:     “So, are you telling me that you have a contractual arrangement with them?”      

ATT:    “Well yes, they bill for the services they provide on our phones and we in turn pass through the payment to them.”

ME:     “You said you had no control over them. In fact, you are complicit in this rip-off!”

(the sound of dictionary pages rustling)

ME:     “If you are the entity collecting the money from this admittedly fraudulent scheme, why don’t you just refuse to pay them?”

ME:     “How much does ATT keep from each $9.99 that you collect?”

ATT:    “Sir, you should now have received am email from ATT, stating that the charges have been removed from your account. It may take 24 hours or more for the actual charges to appear, but the credit has already been issued.”

ME:     “Why don’t you just block THIS 3rd party from doing business on YOUR network? We both know for a fact that they are running a scam.”

ATT:    “We are working with the FCC to try and change this.”

ME:     “Does that mean that you are being investigated by the FCC for fraudulent activity?”

ATT:    “I can also put a block on all 3rd party content providers for you, Free of charge.”

ME:     “Why isn’t blocking them the default and then you can let your customers opt in to ‘cramming’ if they want it?”

ATT:    “You will also receive a PIN by text that will allow you to actually make a purchase if you choose to in the future.”

ME:     “Like another scam?”

I was clearly losing her now . . .

ATT:    “Is there anything else I can help you with tonight, Mr. Peterson?”

ME:     “No thank you, you have been very helpful. I’ll be sure to let everyone I know in on this little secret that you have. You have given me lots of good material for my blog on this subject.”

ATT:    “Have a good evening, Mr. Peterson.”

I will hand it to her, she maintained a cool head through this grilling (which lasted 26 minutes with hold time). So, here’s the deal . . .

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Your cell service provider IS NOT on your side (I hope you already knew this)
  • You can be “crammed” without ever signing up for anything
  • Texting “STOP” to these crooks does not mean that you don’t already have charges on your bill
  • Some “crammers” start charging you only IF you reply, regardless of WHAT you reply

ACTION TO TAKE – NOW!

  • Contact your cell service provider TODAY by phone
  • Ask them to block all 3rd party content (this does not prevent you from purchasing apps)
  • Have them check for any unauthorized billing on your current activity
  • Check your statement EVERY month, better yet, twice a month
  • Don’t reply to questionable texts

You are particularly susceptible to being “crammed” if you are set up on auto-pay for your cell service. Some crammers will only charge $2-4/month and hope that you don’t notice. As long as there are people, there will be people who will try to take advantage of others. This is one crook that you can stop. But you can just bet that they are already working on their next scam . . .

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Comments
  1. Dennis says:

    You had my wife and I in stitches. We just started investigating these mysterious $9.99 charges on our cell phone bill. I didn’t cancel it last month because Verizon is open business hours and I actually do work for my employer during business hours.

    Thanks for your blog.

  2. Thanks for your comments Dennis.
    -DJP

  3. sandeen says:

    Hit me too. AT&T refunded it, and then 2 more texts came within days. I called AT&T again; they treated me like I had requested this junk. Told me to reply STOP “like the fine print said when I subscribed. ” I’m pretty skeptical – “so I should talk to the thieves?” I said? And she said yes. Against my better judgement I did; I figure if they had already racked up $40 on me (since refunded) they already know the number is “a live one.” Argh. Grr.

  4. @sandeen – The key to preventing future Cramming is to ask your cell provider to block all 3rd party content. This won’t prevent you from purchasing apps in the future. They will give you a PIN that you will need to reply with if you DO want to purchase an offer. Good luck!

    -DJP

    • sandeen says:

      I think I have the block, requiring a pin for purchases, but that doesn’t stop the texts, apparently. And AT&T says they “cannot” block texts by originator. I’m unconvinced.

  5. Nope. That won’t stop the texts, but it will render them harmless. Sounds like a topic for a new blog post. :-)

    -DJP

    • Brian says:

      It won’t render them harmless and here is why.
      I experience harm when the text messages come during my sleep.
      I experience harm when the text messages come when I am in foreign countries.

      You are 100% correct in your assessment that the phone companies are complicit as they get at least 30% of the charges that are made to your account and they get paid when you get spammed and are roaming, not to mention if you go over your alloted message limit then they get paid as well.

  6. Danielle says:

    The purchase blocker is a great tool to thwart the $9.99 cramming efforts, but not replying AT ALL is the best thing to do. If you are an AT&T customer, you have many options on how to help keep these charges at bay. First, is the purchase blocker, second, you can forward any of your spam messages to 7726. By reporting these content providers, you can better assist your provider with putting an end to these ridiculous companies that get rich off of people’s lack of attention span. Also visiting http://www.att.com/db, you can dispute any charges you have without having to deal with a rep over the phone. Hope the forwarding number helps. It’s only good for AT&T customers though, and I have yet to figure out other carriers reporting methods.

  7. George says:

    How can we complain and put an end to this companies stealing money from unsuspecting people?

    • Many state Attorneys General have started cases against crammers. I suggest you file a complaint with your AG if you have been a victim of cramming and are in the US. We need to make some noise about this until it goes away!

  8. PROTECT YOURSELF FROM CARRIER CELL PSMS/CSC & DATA FRAUD SCAMS TODAY.
    Everyone must contact their Carriers today to Block these scams and Audit for Victim Fraud.
    Insist Carriers block “Third-Party Billing” on your cell phones immediately.
    Insist Carriers block “Cellular Data” on your cell phones immediately.
    Insist Carriers provide audits of all “Third-Party Billings” on your cell phones immediately.
    Inform the Carriers of their fiduciary responsibilities to comply accurately with your requests.
    Visit this site: http://www.disnetinc.com/carrierpetition.html Phone: 1 702 421 3511.
    STOP the victim cycle. Get support confronting Carriers: Email: carrierpetition@disnetinc.com

  9. Khale says:

    Had this same problem and when contacting my carrier they actually tried to sell me on a service to block these numbers. For only $4.99 a month. I huffed and puffed about not being extorted until they finally mentioned, “Oh well you can block them for free etc…” I guess ATT sees the scam and wants in on it even more so.

  10. Rara Skye says:

    Thanks David for your article and about the “STOP” term. It really working. Before this,there is an unknown mobile service provider keep sending me a message and it cost $3 for each message(and I got 5 messages). I can’t bear it anymore and I come across your article and your “STOP” word. So I give it a try and its really working. Now,I don’t have to worry about my phone charge anymore. Thank you so much.

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