On Your Side
Well, I’ll Be
PHONY CHARGES IN YOUR PHONE
BILL? IT’S CALLED CRAMMING.
HERE’S HOW TO FIGHT BACK
RAFFAELLA MARTINELLI OF
Arlington Heights, Illinois, was surprised
to see a charge of $16.07 on her AT&T
telephone bill for music download-ing and answering services. When
she told AT&T she had never ordered
those, AT&T told her to contact
Enhanced Services Billing Inc.
(ESBI), the company that posted the
charge. ESBI, however, refused to
cancel it. The next month another
$16.07 appeared on her bill. That’s
when she wrote to me.
Mandated in the 1984 breakup of
Ma Bell, third-party
billing was intended
to minimize the number of phone bills—
local, long distance,
in your mailbox.
Decades later, everything from ring tones
to charitable contributions to online-gambling debts may
show up on your bill,
as ESBI. Your telephone number has
become a charge
account—but absent the security of
a password, PIN, or signature, as you
have with a credit or debit card.
The term for bogus charges stuffed
into a phone bill is cramming. ESBI’s
parent, BSG, has twice been sued for
the practice, paying $1.9 million in
a settlement with the Federal Trade
Commission in 2008. Lois Greisman,
After I intervened,
AT&T erased the
$32.14 on Raffaella
To Stop Cramming
There’s only one way to
third-party charges on your
phone bill: ask your carrier
to block them all. These
numbers should help.
• AT&T 800-288-2747
• Comcast 800-266-2278
• Qwest 800-491-0118
• Verizon 800-837-4966
If you encounter any problems, drop me an e-mail at
Yet it bothers me that the average
cramming victim can’t count on
AT&T’s help. The company recently
decided to require independent
audits of billing practices used by outfits such as ESBI, but it has no plans
to verify third-party transactions
that appear on its bills, and probably
won’t unless compelled.
That could happen. Last fall the
FTC recommended five policy
changes that it said could eliminate
cramming—among them, a requirement that phone companies address
cramming complaints by consumers.
Until such regulations are approved, your best protection against
cramming is to request a “third-party
block” (see box at left). If you’re a
victim of cramming, file a complaint
with the FTC. Call 877-382-4357 or
go to ftccomplaintassistant.gov. ;
Ron Burley is author of Unscrewed: The
Consumer’s Guide to Getting What You
Paid For. Read a new On Your Side column
twice a month at aarp.org/money.