Apr 19, 2012 (The Morning Call - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Starting today, current and former Verizon customers can apply for a refund of unauthorized charges you unknowingly paid because they were "crammed" onto your phone bill.
Even better, you shouldn't have to deal with future cramming charges because Verizon and AT&T are taking a major step to prevent them.
Cramming occurs when your phone bill includes charges you didn't authorize from companies other than your phone company. They can range from phone-related services such as voicemail to nearly anything else, such as diet plans.
How the charges get on your phone bill is a complicated story, but suffice it to say that it's legal and is all about money.
Cramming gets its name because the charges are crammed among the many line items on your phone bill and may not be easily noticed. The Federal Communications Commission estimates 15 million to 20 million people receive crammed charges on their home phone bills annually, and many aren't immediately aware of it.
Verizon's refunds stem from the tentative settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed in California. The lawsuit alleged Verizon knew or should have known it was including phony charges from other companies on its bills, but looked the other way because it was getting paid to pass along the charges.
Verizon denies it did anything wrong or that it has any liability for third-party charges.
The tentative settlement (it still needs final court approval) applies to land-line phone customers of Verizon between April 27, 2005, and Feb. 28. You can file a claim for reimbursement of third-party charges from certain companies if you did not authorize them and haven't already received refunds. If you are not sure whether your bills included crammed charges, Verizon will give you a summary.
You can seek a flat payment claim of $40, or, if the false charges that you paid exceeded $40, you can seek full reimbursement by documenting how much you paid.
Verizon said by the end of the year, it no longer will include charges from most outside companies on its bills because of the threat of cramming. There will be an exception for "strategic partners" such as DirecTV, which provides the television component of Verizon's service bundles.
AT&T also will stop most third-party billing for land-line accounts, in August. Spokeswoman Brandy Bell-Truskey said AT&T has reduced cramming complaints, but wanted to do everything it could to give customers confidence in their bills.
Verizon was studying third-party billing last year, and took into consideration the class-action lawsuit settlement and a cramming investigation by the U.S. Senate. The company concluded the third-party billing services "were too prone to abuse," Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski said.
Cramming victim Debbie Dellegrotti of Lower Macungie Township said she told Verizon that last year. She said Verizon should have verified third-party charges before placing them on bills.
"You should have some sort of way of doing the cross-reference with your customer to make sure that it's OK," she said.
Dellegrotti said she'd discovered her Verizon bill contained a $15.85 monthly charge for "voicemail services." She said she hadn't signed up for voicemail services and didn't need to because it was part of her Verizon phone plan.
She told me she didn't immediately notice the charges. When she did and asked about them, she said Verizon removed the charge from her current bill, but told her she'd have to get a refund of what she'd paid in previous months from the company that had charged her.
Dellegrotti said she contacted Voice Mail Services, of Montana, and it told her she had signed up online.
She asked for the information on the account and said the name, address and email address were not hers, nor was the Internet IP address from the computer she supposedly used to sign up.
"It was a different person, it was a different address, and yet it was on my phone number," Dellegrotti said.
She got a refund for only six of the 13 months she had paid the charge. After I asked Verizon about it, it gave her a courtesy credit of the remaining $127.
Cramming wasn't an issue decades ago when AT&T (known as "Ma Bell") had a monopoly over wireline phone service and billed customers for only the services it provided.
That changed when the federal government broke up that monopoly in the 1980s, according to the class-action lawsuit against Verizon.
The Bell break-up split the nation's phone network into units operated by local exchange carriers such as Verizon. Those carriers broadened billing to also bill and collect for services provided by other companies.
Over time, Verizon and other carriers made their billing and collection systems "available to a myriad of providers of varied products and services," such as automobile roadside service, diet companies and credit repair services, the lawsuit says.
Verizon is paid to provide that service, but doesn't verify the validity of the charges it is passing on to its customers, the lawsuit says. Rather, it shifts that responsibility to the company that is paying it for billing and collection. And all an outside company needs to slap its charges on a person's phone bill is the person's phone number.
The lawsuit alleged that is "a virtual invitation to fraud and abuse" because phone numbers are widely available, potentially allowing anyone to be signed up for a service without their knowledge.
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Verizon cramming settlement
Eligibility: Current and former Verizon land-line customers from April 27, 2005, to Feb. 28, 2012, who were billed third-party charges submitted to Verizon by Billing Concepts, Billing Services Group Clearing Solutions, BSG, USBI, ZPDI, ACI Billing Services, OAN, Enhanced Services Billing, ESBI, HBS Billing Services, Billing Concepts, The Billing Resource, Integretel, ILD Teleservices, Transaction Clearing, PaymentOne, Ebillit.