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They are small amounts, usually overlooked by most customers and, according to recent Federal Communications Commission estimates, affect 15 million to 20 million American households.

They are small amounts, usually overlooked by most customers and, according to recent Federal Communications Commission estimates, affect 15 million to 20 million American households.

We are talking about mystery fees on your phone bills, and chances are you have paid them at some point. These mysterious charges are usually buried deep inside phone bills, generally appearing under generic descriptions – minute use fee, activation, member fee, voice mail or Web hosting. The catch is, these fees often total just a few dollars, so they can be easy to overlook. But we all know how, over a span of time, a couple of dollars can begin to add up.

The FCC on July 12 voted to seek public comments on new proposed rules which would make it easier for customers to detect and challenge mystery fees on their phone bills, and on July 13, the Senate held hearings on the topic.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, referred to a one-year study by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee which shows about $2 billion a year in “mystery fees” appearing on Americans’ landline phone bills of Americans (a problem known as cramming).

During the hearing, according to a CNN report, Rockefeller asked an industry representative why major companies like AT&T haven’t curtailed unauthorized third-party charges from going onto customers’ phone bills.

“It’s illegal, it’s wrong, it’s scamming,” Rockefeller said. “Why haven’t you cleaned up your act?”

We agree, and wonder the same thing.

Consider this: According to the Commerce Committee’s report, phone companies receive a small fee – often just one dollar or two – for allowing charges from third-party vendors to appear on their bills. Due to the large number of customers, the charges eventually add up. The report also points out that AT&T, Verizon and Qwest made $650 million during the past five years.

Even worse, rarely are any of these fees justified.

For example, the state of Illinois has brought a number of lawsuits in an attempt to fight cramming. Attorney General Lisa Madigan told the panel that her investigations indicate in most cases customers are not even getting services in return, according to CNN.

“From the beginning, third-party charges on phone bills have been an open invitation to fraud and deceit. It’s been a scam,” Madigan said. “My office has yet to see a legitimate third-party charge on a bill.”

So what could these new rules look like?

For starters, landline phone companies would be required not only to place third-party charges in a separate section of phone bills, but also notify consumers whether they offer the option of blocking such charges. Landline and wireless carriers would also be required to notify consumers that they can file complaints with the FCC along with providing the agency’s contact information.

Also under consideration – requiring landline phone companies to offer services that block third-party fees, or perhaps require landline phone companies to automatically block third-party fees from consumer bills altogether.

In the meantime, consider these suggestions from the FCC to protect yourself: Contact your phone company and opt out of third party billing; Know your phone bill so that you may recognize unusual charges; Be careful when supplying your name, address and phone number for promotions, coupons and sweepstakes; Read all forms and promotional materials before signing up for telephone or other services; Don’t ignore small charges, which can add up to big amounts.

There’s no reason these rules should not pass. These mystery fees are obviously underhanded and a scam to make money.

Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer

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