This post is from GRS staff writer Donna Freedman. Donna writes a personal finance column for MSN Money. She also writes about frugality, intentional living, and life in general at her own blog, Surviving And Thriving.

My cell phone is billed directly to a rewards credit card, so I usually just give it a quick glance. Bad consumer! Bad! (Keep reading to see just how bad.)

A few days ago I happened to notice a charge under “monthly subscriptions.” I was being billed $19.99 for ringtones, a service I never received. Or even asked for: I wouldn’t know how to download a ringtone if it meant the firing squad. The free one that came with my dumbphone is ring enough for me — and besides, I usually keep it on “silent.”

A closer look showed that the service was attached to my son-in-law’s number (we have a family plan). I called the company to say that my SIL doesn’t use ringtones.

The customer service rep suggested that maybe SIL ordered it and forgot to tell me — or that maybe he clicked one of those sneaky third-party deals, e.g., a “free trial” that turns into a subscription.

This delightful practice is called “cramming.” Once the province of landlines, it’s spreading among cell users like a cough in a kindergarten.

A golden opportunity
For more than 10 years phone companies have been allowed to do “third-party billing,” i.e., to bill on behalf of other businesses. (Such as a ringtone provider.) This can be totally above-board if you actually requested the service. But it’s a golden opportunity for shady companies, which lure in consumers with tactics like:

  • Inviting you to enter a “contest.” By filling out the form, you’re unwittingly enrolling in a service, e.g., joke-of-the-day or horoscopes. (There are plenty of legitimate online contests out there. Read all rules carefully before giving out any personal information.)
  • Promoting a “free” deal. You might be required to call an 800 number, give your name and say “I want that.” Sometimes the service isn’t really free, but you don’t know that until you get your cell bill. (Assuming that you actually read it. Ahem.)
  • Luring you in with something like a free IQ test or free manufacturers coupons. By participating, you’re signing up for something else. (Note: Obviously, not all such offers are bogus.)
  • Sneakiest of all: Getting hold of your number somehow and slipping a charge onto your bill.

In short, crammers are lying liars who lie — and then charge you for it.

Millions of victims
The Federal Communications Commission estimates that some 20 million consumers are being victimized each year. That’s because the charges are easy to overlook. They’re usually small (as little as $1.99) and vaguely described as something like “long distance” or “service fee.”

But these small charges add up to big business: In mid-June the FCC singled out four major crammers, proposing forfeitures of $11.7 million.

On July 12 the FCC proposed three new rules to cut crammers off at their deceitful knees:

  • Separation. Landline companies would have to be required to show third-party charges in a separate section of the bill.
  • Blocking. Often it’s possible to block third-party charges, thereby ensuring a cram-free life. (Now they tell me!) Under the new rule, phone companies would have to let consumers know this on each and every bill and also on their websites.
  • Revenge! Okay, they didn’t actually call it that. The new rule would require landline and wireless providers to put FCC complaint contact info on websites and bills so that customers could report their experiences.

Why didn’t I notice?
The customer service rep canceled the ringtone service and said I’d be refunded for three months’ worth of payments.

Three months? Could it have gone back that far without my noticing? Then a dim corner of my brain shuddered to life. Hadn’t I asked my daughter about this before?

Sure enough: My e-mail history showed a communiqué from March 20. My daughter had replied that neither of them had ordered ringtones so I should dispute the charge.

And I certainly should have. But back in March I was coming off a year-plus of very frequent travel (home only about three months total). While house-sitting in Los Angeles in January I’d fallen down some steps, causing injuries that made the next month’s trip to England a lot more exhausting than it had to be.

Throughout that hectic year I’d continued my usual pace of writing for four different sites. I also suffer from “mental-pause,” i.e., brain fog related to the climacteric. Sometimes I forget what I’m doing while I’m doing it. (Is this shampoo or conditioner that I’m rinsing from my hair? Did I just swallow a multivitamin or was it the thyroid medication? Why am I on a bus?)

Crammers live for consumers like me: too inattentive, preoccupied or exhausted to pay attention to our bills. And these companies thrive because it’s up to the consumer — not the phone provider — to make sure that unwanted services are not being purchased.

And I don’t even LIKE ringtones!
I almost didn’t write this piece. It’s the electronic equivalent of a “kick me” sign — a personal finance columnist who doesn’t carefully scrutinize her utility bills! Who as a result paid out almost $120 in unnecessary charges! (Or would have, if the phone company hadn’t kicked back three months’ worth.)

It gets worse: The bogus charges might have gone back further than six months. I don’t know, because I pay the bills as they arrive and then toss them.

Frankly, I don’t want to know how long this went on. It’s too depressing to take in what I paid out. I don’t need a kick-me sign: I’m booting my own ass right now.

I can’t believe I paid for ringtones I never used. I don’t even like ringtones. They’re annoying. Why can’t the world operate on “vibrate”? I’m with Foamy the Squirrel, the cartoon character who suggests that one antidote to cell-phone noise pollution would be a ringtone that sounded like this:

“Hey! Follow the sound of my voice and kill whoever’s holding the phone!”

(Warning to those who follow the above link: Foamy uses language that’s not ready for prime time. Don’t come crying to me if you’re upset by the F-bomb.)

I decided to write the column after all, as a cautionary tale. Sometimes we don’t pay attention. Sometimes we don’t do what we know we should do. Sometimes life happens.

But life also goes on. So learn from my mistakes. Read your utility bills, whether you get them on paper or online. Dispute charges you don’t recognize. Don’t give a crammer a dime of your business. And if you find me on a bus looking confused, please e-mail J.D. and let him know that I might miss deadline.

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