Herald JournalHerald Journal, Oct. 18, 2004

Internet scam targets HL couple
Couple gets unwanted phone service via a computer pop-up

By Darla Swanson

Last July, Shawn and Kelly Mortenson found themselves victims of a scam connected with both the Internet and their telephone service.

Though the Mortensons consider themselves to be computer literate, they never saw this coming.

“Someone who is new to the Internet could definitely fall prey to it,” Shawn Mortenson said. Evidently, some of the scams are so tricky that even the computer savvy can be victimized, he added.

The Howard Lake couple noticed a voicemail service on their August phone bill that neither one of them ordered. They called their local phone company, but were told that the service was through a third party and they would need to call the company directly to remove it.

According to the company providing the service, the voicemail service was signed up for over the Internet in July. The Mortensons had no recollection of ever signing up for the voicemail and reported that they had never done business online.

Further, they were told that in order to remove the service they would need to access the company’s Web site. The web site, however, could only be accessed with an access code, which the Mortensons didn’t have.

The Mortensons didn’t use the voicemail service because they didn’t order it so they were unaware it existed. When they asked for a refund of the $14.95 monthly fee, the company denied their request saying that they do not give refunds.

Attempts to cancel the service also failed as the charges showed up on their September phone bill. The company claims to have sent a confirmation e-mail, which the couple never received. Nor did they receive a follow-up e-mail, which the company promised to send after speaking with them.

The Mortensons have been told that a pop-up on the computer was the avenue to the unwanted service. Apparently the pop-up was never opened, but in order to deny the service being advertised the consumer needs to go into the web site and refuse services.

To the Mortensons’ surprise, simply clicking off the pop-up signed them up for the service.

The situation is still unresolved.

Mortenson has been researching how to deal with the situation via the Federal Trade Commission’s web site, where there are instructions on how to deal with the matter.

“We’re doing it step by step now,” Mortenson said.

The FTC describes what happened to the Mortensons as “cramming,” which the FTC says is “unexplained charges on your phone bills for services you never ordered, authorized, received, or used.”

Sometimes the consumers are charged only once, sometimes monthly.

Detailed information on dealing with cramming is outlined on the FTC web site, as well as advice on how not to get crammed and where to complain. One place to complain is the attorney general’s office.

According to Leslie Sandberg, spokesperson for the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, consumers should contact the attorney general’s office and report such an incident. “We can work with them and help guide them and get to the bottom of it. A lot of times we get the services removed,” she said.

Sandberg added that the office can act as an advocate for the consumer. All complaint data is confidential.

At the time, it was not illegal for a third party to provide services to consumers and charge for them on their local phone bills. Mortensons learned this the hard way. One step they have taken in order to protect themselves in the future is to contact their local phone company and put a block on any third party charges.

Victimized? Call

Victims of cramming are encouraged to call the attorney general’s office consumer assistance line at 800-657-3787 and ask for the residential utilities division.

The FTC can be reached at 877-382-4357. The FTC web site is www.ftc.gov and click on “for consumers.”

Cramming – now, an illegal activity

The good news?  A new Minnesota telephone consumer protection law went into effect Aug. 1, 2004 that will help prevent unwanted charges from appearing on a local telephone bill, according to the attorney general’s office.  In addition, the new law simplifies consumers’ efforts to remove improper charges if they do appear on a bill.

Under the new law, consumers may dispute any unauthorized, third-party charges that appear on their telephone bill by contacting the local telephone company directly.  The local provider is required to remove the charge and to contact the third-party biller on the consumer’s behalf.

Any company that bills its services on a local telephone bill must also now obtain a customer’s express permission to do so first.  The authorization may be made orally, electronically or in writing, and a copy of it must be maintained.  If the third-party cannot provide your local provider with proof of your authorization, the charges (going back no more than 6 months) must be reversed by your local telephone company.

The best protection against unwanted charges on your telephone bill is to carefully scrutinize your bill, according to the attorney general’s office.  If you sign up for telephone service, including long distance, ask the sales representative how the service will be billed.  Typically the company will offer you a choice of being billed directly, over the Internet or on the local telephone bill.  These days, it isn’t uncommon for a long distance carrier or other service provider to impose an additional charge on its customers if the customer elects to be billed through the local telephone company.

Call your local telephone company and ask about any free services it may provide that will help prevent unwanted billing on your account.  If you add a “PIC freeze” to your service, you will limit long distance companies’ ability to switch or slam your long distance service.  Local companies may offer similar features that help keep third-party service charges off of your bill.  Your local company can also add a 900 number or a collect calling block to your telephone service free of charge.

If you choose to sign up for sweepstakes or contests, check the “fine print” to be sure you are not accidentally authorizing a potentially fraudulent company to use your telephone bill as its invoice.  In addition, consumers should always read the back of “free” checks that come in the mail.  Your signature and telephone number may be misconstrued as authorization for third-party billing, which could appear on your phone bill.

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