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You could be a victim of cramming, but not know it

Experts warn all mobile customers to check their bills for extra charges

If you get a text with dating tips, weight loss advice, horoscope info or anything else you brush off as spam, check your mobile phone bill because you may have been crammed.

Cramming is when companies illegally put extra charges on your account without your permission. You may be paying for fraudulent charges right now and have no idea.

Wen Chao got a text offering a d3eal to download mobile content for $9.99 a month, she ignored it.  But when a second text popped up from the same sender with a strange note about war and peace, she opened it.

"I thought oh maybe it's from a friend whose number I don't have in the contacts," said Chao.

She called her mobile phone carrier to block future mystery messages, and got some shocking news.

"I was told that by the act of opening the text message I had consented to what they were trying to sell me," explained Chao.

That $9.99 charge appeared on Chao's bill as "premium messaging."

"It's all very sneaky," added Chao.

Industry experts say charges like this are costing consumers more than $600 million each year.  The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down, and recently filed its very first case against a company for mobile cramming.

"We're very concerned about what we see as a growing number of complaints," explained FTC Attorney, Duane Pozza.

The FTC says it has gotten thousands of complaints, but they say even more could be a victim and not even know it.

"Many consumers overlook the charges on their phone bill, so the complaints that we see really are just the tip of the iceberg," warned Pozza.

The FTC says consumers miss these charges because they appear on mobile phone bills as innocuous sounding fees like: standard rate plan, member fee and voicemail. 

So why don't cell phone companies, that also profit when third party companies charge your bill, make these fees more prominent?

"If you have thousands of different kinds of services available that wouldn't be practical for a billing system to be able to specifically list those thousands. I mean that would be a pretty expensive proposition," said John Walls with the Wireless Industry Trade Association, CTIA.

CTIA says carriers haven't received a lot of cramming complaints and says most major mobile phone companies and vendors follow best practices that require third parties make consumers aware they'll be charged.  

"Carriers make it very clear when they take on a relationship with a third party vendor like this, that there are certain rules of the road you have to follow here, and we're going to work awfully hard to keep you from doing anything to our consumer if you will that's not lawful," said Walls.

There's no federal law giving you the right to dispute questionable mobile phone charges like there is with your credit card.  It's a carrier-by-carrier decision. 

Chao was able to convince her carrier to remove the charges and is still stunned this even happened.

"You really need to be vigilant when you pay your bills," she said.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering requiring mobile carriers make third party charges more obvious on phone bills.  In the meantime, if you're concerned about being crammed, you can call your cell phone company and ask them to block any third party charges from being billed to your account.  

For advice from the FTC on what to do if you have mystery charges on your phone bill, click here.