The Phone Fraud Handbook

Phone Fraud Alert

Phone fraud is a serious matter, considering every year thousands of people lose money to this type of scam. To ensure your safety when using a telephone, Unlock Your Wealth Radio has provided a Phone Fraud Handbook, courtesy of The Office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson. Take advantage of the advice and warnings of phone fraud to protect you, your money and your identity.

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Protect Yourself From Fraud

Read your phone bill closely. If you see unfamiliar charges or companies on your bill, contact the company that is billing you and demand an explanation and proof that you authorized the services appearing on your bill. Look out for the following common types of fraudulent activities.

Why Is My Phone Bill From A New Long Distance Company?

“Slamming” is when your long distance or local service provider is switched to another company without your knowledge or permission. You may not know you were slammed until you get a phone bill from a different company often charging higher rates.

What Should I Do If I Have Been Slammed?

If you think you have been slammed, call your local phone company to tell them and ask to be switched back to your preferred company. Request that any switching fees be refunded to you. You should also file a complaint with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.

Under Minnesota and Federal law, the company that slammed you must prove that you authorized the change in companies. If they cannot, they are required to write off any accrued charges. You should act promptly in order for this remedy to work effectively. Many companies will offer to re-bill the calls based on the rates of your former company. If the company presents some proof that you, or an adult member of your household, authorized the change, it may be appropriate to resolve the matter by accepting such a “re-rating” of your bill.

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How Can I Prevent Slamming?

You can take steps to avoid being slammed. Most importantly, put yourself in control by making it your policy not to switch telephone providers through a telemarketer. If you are interested in switching phone companies, call the companies directly and ask for their best calling plans and promotional rates. If you receive a call from a telemarketer selling local or long distance service and you are interested in the offer, your best move is to call the company directly to clarify any special deals or rates. Always ask for the rates in writing so you have proof of the offer.

To prevent slamming you can also ask your local telephone company for a “PIC Freeze.” This means that your long distance company cannot be switched unless you personally contact your local phone company and request the switch. Regardless of how your long distance service is billed, you need to contact your local telephone company for a PIC Freeze for technological reasons.

Finally, be careful when filling out sweepstakes forms or endorsing “free” checks from long distance companies. These are marketing techniques often used to entice people into switching their long distance service. The fine print on the document that you sign could authorize a new company to provide your long distance service.

What Is Cramming?

Your local telephone company may bill for services that it or other companies provide, such as information or entertainment services accessed through 900 numbers, club memberships, voice mail, paging, or Internet services. If you are being billed for services you did not order, you may have been “crammed.” Review your phone bill for charges you don’t recognize. Cramming charges are very easy to overlook and sometimes appear on your phone bill with ambiguous terms such as “charges and credits” or “enhanced services” to make you think they are authorized.

What Can I Do If I Get Crammed?

If you are being billed for something you did not order, contact your local phone company right away to dispute the unauthorized charges and have them removed from your bill. Be sure to ask for a refund of all payments that you may have mistakenly paid on previous bills. Protect yourself by following up in writing and keeping copies of important documents.

In 2004, a new state law was enacted to help prevent unwanted charges from appearing on local phone bills, and to simplify the process for getting the charges removed from a bill. Under the law, consumers may dispute any unauthorized, third-party charges that appear on their telephone bill by contacting the local telephone company directly. The law states that the local provider is required to remove the charge and to contact the third-party biller on behalf of the consumer. The third-party biller must also provide documentation showing it had the consumer’s authorization to place charges on the local telephone bill. If such authorization cannot be provided, the charges (going back not more than 6 months) must be reversed by the local telephone company.

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How Do I Prevent Cramming?

Many times you unknowingly give someone permission to charge you for unwanted phone service when you fill out a sweepstakes entry form, sign up for free coupons online, or use a toll free service like a date line or psychic line. Always read the front and back of any prize registration form, sign-up sheet, or contract that you fill out, especially if it asks for your phone number.

What If I Get Billed For Unauthorized Calls To An Adult Entertainment Service?

Under Minnesota law, if a minor or a vulnerable adult made calls without your authorization to pay-per-call services, such as those to 1-900 numbers, you are not liable for calls. You can dispute any charges that you believe are incorrect by calling the company whose toll-free number is listed on your bill, but make sure that you follow up your dispute in writing. Until the dispute is resolved, you can pay only those portions of the bill with which you agree. When you send in your payment, call your local phone company and indicate how you want the payment divided up. Your local and long distance phone service cannot be disconnected for nonpayment of pay-per-call charges, however, your long distance company may attempt to disconnect your long distance service for nonpayment of international charges.

Charges For Downloadable Adult Access:

Be wary of adult entertainment web pages offering “no credit card” access. These sites may be equipped with programs that download a new icon on to your computer. When the icon is clicked, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) is disconnected and the new program redials your phone to gain access to adult sites by way of an international telephone number. Some of the dialers skirt blocks you may have put on your phone service by using dial around access codes (10-10 numbers). Internet connections that use these numbers are extremely expensive. They are also very difficult to dispute with your long distance company. If you are concerned that access to adult sites may fall into the wrong hands in your home, it may be wise to use an Internet filter or content-control software.

How Can I Prevent Pay-Per-Call Charges?

Talk to your children and other family members about these numbers so that they understand these calls are not free, and in fact can quickly mean bills for hundreds or thousands of dollars. By law, you are not liable for unauthorized calls made by minors or vulnerable adults to pay-per-call services, but getting the charges removed can be a real hassle. You can also block access to many of these services by calling your local phone company’s customer service line.

Can I Block 1-900 Numbers?

You can get 1-900 number blocking from your local phone company at no charge.

Making Calls Away From Home

There may be times when you want to make calls when you are not at home or work. At these times, you can carry a wireless phone with you or use a public pay phone with a prepaid phone card, calling card number, or just coins.

Things to Consider When Evaluating Whether to Purchase Wireless (or Cellular) Service

Consumers who want a wireless or cellular phone should evaluate their options carefully. A contract for wireless service may represent a one or two year commitment and once you sign the contract it can be costly to get out of it early. Therefore, it is important to choose a service provider and plan that work for you. There are many different companies offering a variety of service plans and equipment. Generally, many of the phones offered by the different carriers are roughly equivalent to each other, so you should mostly focus on the terms of the plan being offered. The right plan for you will depend on the way you will use the phone. You should ask yourself a number of questions before signing a contract for wireless service, including:

  • How often will I use my phone?
  • At what time of day will I make most of my calls?
  • Do I expect to make most calls within my area or will I use the phone regularly when traveling?
  • Will most of my calls be local, or will I make domestic or international long distance calls?
  • How long am I willing to commit to a particular carrier’s service?
  • Will I need text messaging, internet access, a camera or other more advanced features?
  • Will I use my wireless phone to replace traditional phone service?
  • Do I want a plan I will share with other family members?
  • If I intend to access the internet with my phone, do I need to purchase an additional “data plan.”

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What Should I Know About Wireless Contracts?

When purchasing wireless phone service, read the contract carefully. You can specifically ask the company to explain the amount you will be charged for service, the amount of any government mandated taxes and fees, and variable charges for extra minutes or for roaming outside your service territory. You can also ask for an estimate of the amount of your first bill, which may include more than one month’s service. Be aware that some contracts allow wireless carriers to change the price during the term of the contract, and the carrier may also impose a hefty termination fee if you want to cancel the service before the end of the contract. Keep your contract even after you’ve started your service so you’ll have the document in the future if there is a dispute about your service down the road. Also, be careful about making changes to your service during the term of the contract and ask whether the change will extend the length of the contract term. If you feel uncomfortable signing a contract, but also feel you need a wireless phone, consider getting a pre-paid cell phone. That way your commitment is limited and if you don’t like the service, you aren’t tied down with a contract.

If you have a “smart” phone and want to access the internet, you may be required to purchase a data service plan in addition to your voice service plan. These plans can add considerable costs to your total wireless service bill. Data plans can vary based on the amount of data you expect to use, the number of devices on the plan, or other services such as voice and texting that are packaged with the data plan. Prepaid data plans are also available.

Where Will My Phone Work?

A wireless carrier’s coverage area is based on the geographic area in which the carrier has built out its network. While carriers often provide maps showing areas they say they have coverage, these maps may only be rough guidelines of the area where the phone will work. The companies often say that they do not guarantee that a phone will have coverage in a particular area. When deciding whether to purchase wireless phone service or when choosing between carriers, you may want to ask your friends and neighbors about their coverage with their wireless companies. You should also inquire whether the carrier offers users a trial period, usually 14 to 30 days, during which a customer can return the phone without a penalty if the coverage is insufficient in their area. If the phones work in an area, but the service quality is poor so that calls drop, you experience static or otherwise have a bad connection, you should document your concerns and contact your carrier right away to make a complaint. Carriers may be more inclined to be responsive to the problem if you call right away, but less inclined to help if you continue your usage and make lots of calls. Beware of the company’s offer of a new phone to fix the problem. By getting the new phone, you may be entered into a new contract, and it is possible that the new phone won’t work any better in your area than the old one.

Are Rebates on Wireless Phones and Equipment a Good Deal?

It’s a good idea to do some homework before signing a wireless contract based on a rebate offer. Often the rebates offered aren’t instant rebates allowing the customer to get the benefit right away, but instead require the customer to keep their phone packaging and copies of their bills. Customers may not be able to claim the rebate until they have had the phone for some time, and even afterwards it may take a long time for the customer to receive the refund. For this reason, instant rebates are preferable. Consumers should read the fine print, and can even check out a rebate company online to see whether other consumers have had difficulty obtaining a rebate’s benefits from a particular company.

The Customer Service Representative I Talked to Wasn’t Helpful

If you have difficulty dealing with a wireless carrier’s customer service representative, you should ask to speak to a supervisor. Also, document your experience so that you can provide a clear picture of the treatment you received and then file a complaint with one of the government agencies that handle wireless issues. While the wireless companies aren’t legally required to provide good customer service, documentation about your experience may make it easier to resolve your complaint.

Why are There Charges on My Wireless Bill for Third Party Services?

Many wireless carriers aren’t just charging for their wireless service anymore, but have opened up their bills as a platform for billing for third parties. Carriers often include extra charges on bills for ring tones, text messaging and other services downloaded from third parties or through the carrier. If you make a change to your service that will result in an extra charge, you may want to ask the carrier for specific information on the amount of any increase in your monthly bill. Further, you should always review your bill carefully each month to see whether the charges are accurate. If you notice an inaccurate or unauthorized charge, contact your wireless carrier immediately to dispute it. Many carriers will remove recent charges, but may balk at the idea of removing charges that are more than a few months old. Also, if you provide a phone to your child, you may want to set some ground rules in advance about the child’s usage and explain that there are extra charges for extra services. You may also want to contact your carrier to find out if they offer blocking for third party charges on the phone your child uses.

What are My Options When Using a Pay Phone?

Once heavily regulated, pay phones now operate more like vending machines. As a result, pay phone operators set their own prices for the service they provide – sometimes many dollars per minute. However, unlike vending machines, the price for calling may not be clearly posted. Some pay phones are illegally set up to block your ability to use the long distance company of your choice. If you find this to be the case, hang up and try to find another pay phone. Before you make a call, read the fine print posted on the pay phone, and follow some of these options that may help you and your family save money:

  • Calling Card Calls: Calling cards issued by your long distance company are usually the lowest cost option. Make sure you know about any surcharges, monthly fees or minimums, in addition to the rates for using a calling card. Remember to guard your calling card and access numbers. If your card is stolen or abused, it can be difficult to dispute the unauthorized charges.
  • Pre-paid Calling Card Calls: Unlike standard calling cards, pre-paid calling cards work like a debit card and are often sold in retail stores or even vending machines. You dial a toll free access number and then punch in a code. Buy prepaid cards from long distance companies and retail outlets that you trust. Before you purchase a card, make sure you read the terms and limitations. Be aware that it is possible that the charges for the service will change even after you purchase the card.
  • Collect Calling Using a 1-800 Access Code: This is a less perilous way of making the old fashioned “collect call,” and charges for these calls will appear on the bill of the person you are calling. You may save money compared to direct dial and operator assisted calls, but be sure to listen for rate information before the call is connected. The FCC requires that companies disclose their prices before your call goes through.
  • Direct Dial Calls: Calls made by dialing a long distance number and paying the required amount or using your credit card are direct dial calls. Direct dialed calls from a pay phone are not cheap, but there are fewer surprises associated with them.
  • Operator Assisted Calls: Operator assisted calls, which are long distance calls made from a pay phone by dialing “0” plus the number, are almost always the highest cost, particularly when you use a live operator. In addition, you are limited to the long distance company that provides service for that pay phone.

Tip: Get into the habit of keeping any contracts, service agreements, or other written information you get regarding your phone service. They will be very helpful to refer to if you have questions or disputes.

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