‘Cramming’ bills scam: What it is and what you can do to protect yourself

Scammers try to ‘cram’ bills with unauthorized service charges

Scammers are "cramming" people's phone bills with unauthorized third-party charges that often go unnoticed.

It’s easy to just pay your bills and move on, especially if you have automatic payments turned on.

Paying bills this way means that, chances are, you might never actually open them -- which means you may not even know what you’re paying for.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is issuing an alert about “cramming,” a scam that is attached to your phone bill. Cramming is illegal and is happening all over the country.

What is ‘cramming?’

Cramming is when scammers try to “cram” bills with unauthorized service charges.

“Cramming is something that often goes unnoticed by the general public, until they start asking questions and then find out all these are additional things that I didn’t originally agree to or that I didn’t realize that I was agreeing to,” said Laura Blankenship of the BBB.

These are unauthorized third-party charges that are added to your bill. They can have generic names like “service fee,” “voicemail” or “other fees,” and they are small charges of only a dollar a two, hoping they will go unnoticed.

“Cramming is illegal, so if you do happen to find that this is happening on one of your bills, you do need to report it to the FTC, because they have been given millions of dollars in refunds to people who lost money to cramming,” Blankenship said.

What you can do

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) just issued $5 million in refunds to people who lost money to cramming schemes last month. Read more about the settlement here.

Blankenship tells Local 4 that people should pay attention what they’re paying for and signing up for, especially with their cell phone.

“Don’t be quick to give out your cell phone number, because sometimes the only thing that a scammer needs to cram your bill is your phone number,” Blankenship said. “Be wary about entering any of your cell phone number information or entering into contest giveaways, surveys, anything online. Watch out for unfamiliar websites asking for your phone number in exchange for free tips, sports news, anything like that, especially if it’s not a legitimate website.”

Avoid cramming by:

  • Checking your bill regularly for any unusual or out-of-place charges. If there is a charge you don’t understand, call your provider.
  • Ask for a refund. The BBB says many providers will issue a refund, others might ask you to reach out to the third party first.
  • Request a block on third party charges to your bill.
  • Always pay with a credit card, because it’s much easier to dispute fraudulent charges and to get your money back.

“A lot of the time, people who are falling for this type of scam are people that have signed up for something online, and it looks legitimate, but then unfortunately it’s not, it is a scam,” Blankenship said.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates cramming has harmed thousands of households. Click here to review their helpful breakdown on cramming and how to avoid it.

For more helpful advice from the BBB to avoid scams, click here.

Related: Online scams on the rise as we head into holiday shopping season

About the Author:

Hank Winchester is Local 4's Consumer Investigative Reporter and the head of WDIV's "Help Me Hank" Consumer Unit. He works to solve consumer complaints, reveal important recalls and track down thieves who have ripped off metro Detroiters.