Phone scammers using new tactics

IRS-phone-scam-prevent-fraudFrom Phone scammers using new tactics, clarionledger.com

PDF:Phone scammers using new tactics

It’s hard to imagine a world without caller ID. But it really wasn’t but a couple of decades ago that most people had no idea who might be on the other end of the call when their phones rang. Since so many calls even then turned out to be from telemarketers or scammers, many people just relied on their answering machines if they wanted to screen their calls.

Having been invented almost as soon as the telephone itself, the answering machine helped record business calls for many decades before finally becoming affordable enough for everyday consumers in the 1980s. When they finally had access to answering machines, people began to “screen” their calls, introducing the notion of being able to put off answering a phone call (or ignore it completely). So when the first Caller ID units were introduced in the 1980s, they became instantly popular. For the first time, you could actually see who was calling while the call was in progress — and decide whether to answer.

Of course, telemarketers and scammers found ways to get their calls through, with some unscrupulous companies even beginning to “spoof” phone numbers to fool the Caller ID by hiding the real number from which the call originated. Since then, phone scammers and potential victims have been engaged in a sort of virtual arms race, with each side aided by technology designed to defeat the other’s strategies.

Recently, Inc. magazine ran a story by Joseph Steinberg alerting consumers to three ways phone scammers can steal your money. The first involves a scammer calling your phone using an autodialer (a machine programmed to call thousands of numbers), then hanging up before anybody can answer. They do this repeatedly, in a bid to pique your curiosity so you’ll call the number. A second variant involves the scammer calling your number, waiting for an answer, then introducing the sound of crying or screaming. At this point, the scammer hangs up, hoping you’ll call back to see if you can help.

And in the third tactic, the criminal texts you with an alarming message that someone is in danger of being hurt or killed, with a request that you call back. By placing a call to one of these numbers, you can incur huge charges on your phone bill, and they often aren’t included on phone plans.

These scams are known as “473,” “Ring-and-Run” or “One Ring” scams, and the scammers only want to get you to call specific numbers so they can bill you for huge charges. The number 473 is the area code for some island nations, but a lot of other numbers and countries are used as well. (Criminals, noted Steinberg, adjusted their tactics after consumers learned to avoid making calls to numbers starting with 809.)

This latest advice comes on the heels of what’s become known as the “yes” call scam, in which a criminal gets someone on the phone and asks you a seemingly innocuous question such as “Can you hear me?” only to find that the crook has recorded your “yes” answer and used it as evidence you ordered a product you never agreed to order.

To help you avoid these scams, Steinberg has this advice: “If you miss a call, whomever called can send you a text message (or leave a voicemail),” he advises. “If they did neither, and you don’t know who called, don’t worry about it. Also, remember that it’s unlikely that someone you do not know who is in distress at a location with which you are not familiar would dial a random number in another country and ask you to help them — they would call the police.”

To see Steinberg’s excellent article (including a list of area codes of concern), visit http://on.inc.com/2na78JY.

2.7m AT&T customers getting refunds

cellphonecramming

fcc.com

via 2.7M AT&T Customers getting refunds, Clarionledger.com

PDF:att

It seems few people bother to actually read the details of their telephone bills these days. And there are some folks who would like to keep it that way; they can make a lot of money if you don’t notice charges appearing on your bill for services for which you didn’t know you had signed up — or for which you never signed up in the first place.

The practice of placing unauthorized charges on phone bills — known as “cramming” — goes back decades. It’s widely considered an unscrupulous practice, although it has stubbornly refused to go away. Cellphone users have found their bills can contain charges for everything from ringtones and horoscope services to credit monitoring and seedy 900-number calls. Of course, you can have a lot of things charged to your phone bill; things like in-app purchases and texting donations are convenient and commonplace. But sifting through your bill might result in some surprises.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission announced that more than 2.7 million customers of AT&T Mobile services will be getting checks in the mail, as part of a 2014 settlement with AT&T and two companies called Tatto and Acquinity over various types of unauthorized charges that appeared on AT&T customers’ phone bills. The $88 million in refunds will be issued in the form of bill credits and, in some cases, checks. Refunds will be sent out over the next 75 days and will average about $31, according to an FTC news release.

The refunds represent the most money ever returned to consumers in a mobile cramming case, the agency noted. “AT&T received a high volume of complaints related to mobile cramming prior to the FTC and other federal and state agencies stepping in on consumers’ behalf,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “I am pleased that consumers are now being refunded their money and that AT&T has changed its mobile billing practices.”

The FTC charged that AT&T had kept at least 35 percent of the money gained from the unauthorized charges on customers’ phone bills, which averaged $9.99 per month. Under the settlement, which involved all 50 states and the District of Columbia as well as the Federal Communications Commission, AT&T will notify current customers who were billed for unauthorized third-party charges of the refund program and has agreed to “significantly change” its process for third-party billing.

If you’re due a refund, you should have been notified by Epiq Systems, the refund administrator for the refund program. The FTC reports that checks and bill credits began Dec. 8.

Most experts agree the best way to stop unauthorized charges is to read your phone bill thoroughly. Cell service providers — as well as land-line providers — are required to provide you with a clear and understandable phone bill that details all the charges. It’s a good idea to take a good look through the bill to make sure you know exactly what you’re being charged, and for what. If you see anything you didn’t authorize, call your provider immediately to dispute it or seek further information.

One caveat: Don’t assume just because you don’t recognize the name of the company, that it’s not legitimate. Many companies use the name of a corporate parent company or doing-business-as (DBA) name to charge you for things you actually did order. For example, if you text a donation code to your favorite charity, the charge might not say the name of the charity to which you donated because they’re using a third-party service to collect the funds. So you might want to get into the habit of jotting down the date, time and amount of things you ordered, so you can verify it when the bill comes.

If you do file a dispute, be sure to write down the person you spoke with, the date and time, any promised actions and confirmation numbers. That way, you can go back later to make sure the company followed up on its promises. If you have any questions about the refund process, you can call the FTC consumer redress hotline at 1-877-819-9692.

What’s this phone bill charge?

Phone-bill-cramming-scam-jpg

WTAE.com

via Moak: What’s this phone bill charge?, clarionledger.com

The operator of a Montana nonprofit organization called Bibliologic and several sister companies has been ordered to shut down the operation and surrender nearly all its assets after federal regulators levied charges that they billed phone company customers more than $70 million for services without their consent, transferring the funds to the organization.

Placing unauthorized charges on phone bills (and other types of bills) is called “cramming,” and it’s illegal. This week, the Federal Trade Commission settled the case, which had been brewing for months. The settlement requires the company and its owners to turn over assets that were transferred to it by defendants in another case called American eVoice.

The settlement requires Bibliologic to surrender to bankruptcy trustees nearly all its assets, including “a large tract of land, the contents of multiple bank and investment accounts, gold and silver, and several vehicles,” according to the FTC.

This complicated case highlights the practice of cramming, which has come under increasing scrutiny from regulators in recent years. According to the FCC, cramming is “the illegal act of placing unauthorized charges on your wireline, wireless, or bundled services telephone bill.” Since many consumers don’t bother to read the fine print on their telephone bills, this practice has cost consumers millions in cases like the one discussed above.

While some charges on your telephone bills are out of your control (such as fees paid to maintain the 911 system, or federal taxes), eagle-eyed consumers may notice small charges on their phone bills. Unscrupulous companies will often attempt to charge your phone bill just a few dollars, hoping you won’t notice.

To put a stop to cramming, the FCC recommends you carefully review your telephone bill every month, just as closely as you review your monthly credit card and bank statements. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I recognize the names of all the companies listed on my bill?
  • What services were provided by the listed companies?
  • Does my bill include charges for calls I did not place or services I didn’t authorize?
  • Are the rates and line items consistent with the rates and line items the company quoted to me?

When in doubt, ask questions. “You may be billed for a call you placed or a service you used, but the description listed on your telephone bill for the call or service may be unclear,” the FCC advises. “If you don’t know what service was provided for a charge listed on your bill, ask your telephone company to explain the charge before paying it.”

Make sure you know what service was provided, even for small charges. Cramming often goes undetected as very small “mystery charges” — sometimes only $1, $2, or $— to thousands of consumers. Crammed charges can remain on bills for years.

Keep a record of the services you have authorized and used. These records can be helpful when billing descriptions are unclear.

Carefully read all forms and promotional materials, including the fine print — before signing up for telephone or other services to be billed on your phone bill.

And, if you do suspect cramming, call your phone company immediately to report the charges, ask to have them removed and credited back to your account. If they don’t remove the unauthorized charges, you can file a complaint with the FCC athttps://consumercomplaints.fcc.gov/hc/en-us.

Verizon, Sprint settlement deadline is Thursday

phone-bill23_medium

consumeraffairs.com

via Moak: Deadline is Thursday to file settlement claim, clarionledger.com, 12/28/2015

If you had service through cell phone providers Verizon and Sprint in the past five years, you could be receiving a small check as part of a national settlement over the practice of “bill cramming.” But you’ve got to hurry; if you don’t file before 2015 ends, you’re out of luck.

In May, the two companies settled with the Federal Communications Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for $158 million, after being charged by the agencies with adding unauthorized charges to customers’ phone bills. This practice, known as “cramming,” has become a focal point in a never-ending battle between cell phone providers and government regulators.

In the lucrative schemes, the companies allegedly allowed third-party services to charge customers — without their knowledge — for monthly subscriptions ranging from 99 cents to $14. The companies allegedly made tons of money from commissions, while customers unwittingly paid the fees.

According to the CFPB, many consumers clicked on ads that required them to enter their cellphone numbers to receive “free” digital content, but were later charged. In other cases, charges just appeared on bills without any action from the customer. In some cases, the agencies accused the companies of ignoring consumer complaints and making it difficult for them to have the charges removed.

The settlement requires that Verizon pay $90 million (of which $70 million is designated for customer refunds). Sprint’s portion is $68 million (including $50 million to be refunded to customers). Earlier cramming cases have involved mobile giants AT&T, T-Mobile and others.

“Sprint and Verizon had flawed billing systems that allowed merchants to add unauthorized charges to wireless customer bills,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Consumers bore the brunt of those charges and ended up paying millions of dollars while the companies reaped profits. Today’s actions will put $120 million back into the pockets of harmed consumers and require these companies to improve their billing practices going forward.”

In addition to the payouts, Verizon and Sprint are required to put into place a number of measures designed to curtail cramming, including placing third-party charges into a conspicuous, separate area of the bill; obtain informed consent from customers before billing them; improving their procedures for handling disputes and train their customer service reps better.

These cases illustrate why it’s always a good idea to thoroughly review any bills you receive. When you get your bill, spend a few minutes going over it, and making sure you understand the charges. If anything looks suspicious, you should immediately contact the company at the designated number or email address. And it’s important to follow up to make sure the charges are removed.

To be eligible for a refund, you must have had Sprint or Verizon service after January 2010 and paid third-party fees that were not reversed. To start the claim process, or to check whether you might be entitled to a payment, visit www.cfpbsettlementverizon.com or www.SprintRefundPSMS.com. But hurry; you have until Thursday night, and if you try to mail a claim form, it must be received or postmarked no later than New Year’s Eve

Caller ID may be bogus

via Moak: Caller ID may be bogus, clarionledger.com, 11/20/2015

Caller ID has drastically changed the way we answer the telephone. Believe it or not, Millennials, consumers were once unable to determine who was calling you. (I know; shocking, right?) When this technology was first introduced to the public just 24 years ago (the technology had actually been invented two decades before), it was suddenly possible to choose what calls we accepted and the ones we didn’t. Prior to that, you didn’t know if the caller was bearing life-changing news or just wanted to sell you cut-rate life insurance.

This was a great development for consumers, but quickly became a troubling issue for telemarketers. It eventually would spark what would become a technological arms race between consumers fed-up with dinnertime telemarketing calls and companies whose livelihoods depended on being able to sell stuff over the phone.

But in recent years, the reliability of caller ID has diminished. Tech-savvy companies have found ways to “spoof” caller ID information, making you think the call is coming from a local number. On Friday, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood issued a warning about a scam using this particular deception.

“Scammers realize that consumers are much wiser and more likely to reject calls from unfamiliar numbers,” Hood said. “They use caller ID spoofing technology to impersonate a known or trusted phone number to trick potential victims into answering the phone.”

Hood’s office has received reports from Mississippians that they’re getting calls that purport to be from a local number, but are not.

“Unfortunately, technology has evolved, and we can no longer fully trust that the number displayed is the number that is actually calling us,” said Hood.  “Our advice has always been to answer only those calls from known numbers, but that won’t work when the caller identification has been spoofed, or is displaying incorrect information.”

Hood noted that, in 2010, Mississippi joined other states in enacting the “Caller ID Anti-Spoofing Act” (2010 Miss. H.B. 872) to “regulate and prohibit caller ID spoofing.” However, in 2012, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the state law when it “found that the scammers had a first amendment right to spoof phone numbers and upheld the legality of ‘non-harmful spoofing.’”

So, consumers should cast a wary eye on the caller ID monitor on the phone. Here are few tips from Hood’s office:

  • Don’t answer the phone for a call that shows it is from your own number. That is a sure sign of a scam.
  • Remember that Caller ID can be manipulated. Unscrupulous companies can and do use technology that lets them display whatever number or organization’s name on the screen.
  • Hang up as soon as you realize the call is a scam. “Even answering simple questions in the affirmative or negative could be used to try to scam you,” Hood warned.
  • Be suspicious of anyone who is vague in identifying themselves on the phone.
  • Never wire or send money in any form to persons or organizations you do not know.
  • Don’t call back. If you receive a voice mail message asking for a return call, disregard it.
  • Guard your personal information. Don’t provide bank account, credit card or Social Security numbers to anyone calling you over the phone. Giving out personal information out could cause you to become a victim of identity theft.
  • Don’t be intimidated by threats of arrest. “Scammers may try to intimidate you by threatening to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested,” Hood noted. “Don’t believe them. If your physical safety is threatened in any form or fashion, be sure to report this to local authorities.”

For more information visit www.agjimhood.com, and if you’ve been victimized, call 1-800-281-4418.

Feds cracking down on landline “cramming”

via Feds cracking down on landline “cramming”, clarionledger.com, 12/18/2014.

Our telephone bills are often a puzzling collection of numbers and names, written in what could only be described as code. Most consumers are mystified as to just what those charges are that appear on the bills, and are likely to just pay it and go on. But this fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by companies looking to take advantage. Unscrupulous companies have learned how to charge phone bills and dupe consumers into paying for services which they didn’t agree to.

Back in October, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) settled a cramming case with AT&T for $105 million, and earlier this week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settled part of a case against Montana-based American eVoice and Nathan M. Sann, who was associated with the company.

American eVoice was accused of placing more than $70 million in unauthorized charges over the past seven years on unsuspecting consumers’ landline phone bills. The charges ranged from $9.95 to $24.94 each month for voice mail services that in most cases they didn’t even know they had. The FTC announced the action in a news release today.

Although the settlement contains a monetary judgment of more than $21 million (which represents the “amount of consumer injury attributable to Sann during his involvement with the scam”), Sann will likely not pay anywhere that amount, due to his alleged inability to pay despite surrendering “certain personal assets.”

American eVoice was charged after hundreds of consumers complained about charges appearing on their phone bills. “The FTC alleged that defendants told phone companies and third party ‘billing aggregators’ that the consumers had authorized the charges by filling out forms on the internet,” the FTC had noted earlier.

Under the terms of his settlement with the FTC, Sann will be banned from placing charges of any kind on consumers’ phone bills. In addition, he will be prohibited from billing consumers for any good or service without their authorization, and must destroy all personal information that he collected from consumers in connection with the cramming operation within 30 days.

Consumer advocates have some advice to take to prevent cramming, and what to do if you are victimized:

  • Check your bills regularly, and immediately call your phone company to complain and get it on the record if you notice unauthorized charges.
  • Ask your phone company about setting up a “bill block” on all third-party billing charges, but keep in mind that this would totally block your ability to use third-party services, including some you may want.
  • Don’t give out your telephone number, such as when entering online contests. Look for and read the “fine print” to find out to what you’re agreeing.
If you determine you have been victimized, contact the Mississippi Public Service Commission and/or the FCC.

Cell phone “bill shock” could be a thing of the past

via Cell phone “bill shock” could be a thing of the past | Consumer Watch, clarionledger.com, 3/27/2013

What if you opened your cell phone bill to find that your teenager had run up several thousand dollars in texting charges? It has happened. Or what if your elderly father opened his cell phone bill to find that he had gone over his minutes, resulting in hundreds of dollars’ worth of overage charges? It’s happened. By some accounts, it’s happened in one form or another to one in five cell phone customers.

But, thanks to an agreement reached in 2011between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and major cell carriers, “bill shock” may be a thing of the past. Carriers serving 97 percent of the nation agreed to let customers know (usually via text messages) when they are approaching limits which will trip overage charges. Many of these systems are now in place. Carriers have until April 17 to get it all done.

Bill shock is defined as a sudden and unexpected increase in monthly bills that is not caused by a change in service plans. Bill shock can occur for a number of reasons including unclear or misunderstood advertising, unanticipated roaming or data charges, and other problems.

Sometimes, bill shock is not directly the carrier’s fault, such as when a service provider fails to discount roaming charges incurred overseas. But — under pressure from the FCC and members of congress — major carriers agreed to implement the new notification procedures.

I’ve noticed that my carrier has been notifying me more lately, such as when I have reached the end of a free “streaming pass” period for videos.

The new notifications should help keep many consumers out of trouble. However, the FCC suggests these things consumers can to do to lessen the risk of “bill shock”:

Understand your calling pattern for making voice calls, and ask your carrier for a plan that would be best for your kind of use.
If you are an infrequent phone user, consider a pre-paid plan. Because you “pre-pay” for all your minutes, these plans make it impossible to go over your set limit.
Understand what your roaming charges are and where you will incur them.
Understand your options for data and text plans.
If you are going to use your mobile phone outside the U.S. for voice, email, and other services, make certain to find out beforehand what charges may apply. Consumer Reports has some good advice on this topic on this site.
Ask how your carrier can help you avoid bill shock – with phone or text alerts, by letting you monitor your account online, or by giving you other information.
If you have tried to resolve a billing issue with your carrier and can not reach an acceptable resolution, complain to the FCC at 1-888-CALL FCC (1-888-225-5322), orby clicking here.