Write Stuff – A Word to the Wise: Cellphone Scam

Usually you’ll find this page filled with news about the written word. This week, it contains a word to the wise: a warning about a cellphone billing scam. It doesn’t matter whether you live in Canada, the US, or Europe?if you own a cell, you could fall victim. And believe it or not, your service provider could be profiting from it.

First, a little background. A 78-year-old relative just signed up with a major Canadian cell service provider. She has no data plan and does not use Wi-fi. The phone is to call and text. Three weeks after setting up her account, she received a text message from a company called Buongiorno Gamifive Mobilvillage. It congratulated her on subscribing to their unlimited gaming service for $9.99 a month.

Concerned, she showed it to me. My first instinct was to dismiss it as spam, but to reassure her I Googled. And what I found out should worry anyone with a cellphone.

In Canada, all the major carriers provide third-party billing. (From what I’ve read online, many US carriers do as well.) Here’s how it works: customers can sign up for premium text messages, like a daily horoscope, or subscribe to things like gaming services. The company providing those services adds the cost to your cellphone bill. Your cell carrier pays it, then tacks the amount onto your monthly bill.

Sometimes those charges are legitimate. But all too often they’re not?just like the scam charge from Buongiorno Gamifive (according to the Better Business Bureau listing on them, other names they use are Motime, StarSecrets, PlayPlanet, iBabes, and iFortune). And believe it or not, they and companies like them don’t need anything more than your cellphone number to have your service provider start adding charges to your bill.

Think You’re safe if you didn’t give them your number or you don’t use any apps? Read on for a surprise.

Officially, of course, outfits like Gamifive claim that the only way consumers are ever charged is when they knowingly subscribe. From cases like the one I have firsthand knowledge of, and others like the dozens of people commenting on Shawn Dunn’s blog post, That’s just not true.

So what does a reasonable person do if fraudsters start tacking charges onto his cell bill each month? He calls his service provider, right? It’s not that easy. The verdict is fairly unanimous from folks who’ve fallen prey to fake charges. The cell providers all fall back on the same line: the customer is solely responsible for those extra charges. If you want to dispute it, call the scammers and ask for a refund.

How big is the problem? Big enough that the Competition Bureau of Canada is now suing Bell, Rogers, Telus, and the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) for their part in it.

Which brings us right back to that tricky question of how scammers could possibly have gotten their hands on so many people’s cell numbers. According to this press release from the Competition Bureau, those big cell providers?the same ones who claim they’re helpless to do anything?are the ones who’ve been making their customers? phone numbers available.

Incredible as it seems, here’s the lowdown from the Competition Bureau’s site: ?The Bureau’s investigation has concluded that Bell, Rogers, Telus and the CWTA, through an integrated business model, gave third parties access to their customers, to promote, sell and charge for the third parties? products, all the while misleading customers to believe the content (such as ringtones) was free. Bell, Rogers and Telus billed their own customers and pocketed a share of the revenues, typically between 27?60 percent.?

US cell customers have fallen prey as well. As this Winnipeg Free Press article notes, the Federal Trade Commission recently laid charges for the first time against this type of fraud. The FTC has charged ?a Georgia-based company, Wise Media, of bilking consumers out of millions of dollars? for charges that consumers never authorized.

Many people simply dismissed the messages as spam, but some of those who took them seriously and contacted the scammers right away were still charged.

Is it possible to block third-party charges on your account? That depends on your provider. Some now give the option to block all third-party billing (in Canada, Rogers offers this.) Others, like Koodo Mobile, claim It’s impossible. At least, That’s what the customer service rep told me when I asked.

What can you do if fraudulent charges show up on your cell bill? First, check your monthly bill carefully. Many online commenters have written that they didn’t notice the extra $10 in charges for several months, meaning they were out of pocket hundreds of dollars before they even started fighting it.

If you do spot scam charges, call your service provider. They might try to weasel out of it, but some will offer to reverse one months’s worth of charges. (Fortunately, That’s what my relative’s provider offered. No charges have shown up on her bill yet, but you can bet we’ll be hitting the phone the moment they do.)

As well, your cell provider might offer a toll-free number to contact the scammers directly. The methods to cancel seem to run the gamut from sending a text to speaking with a less-than-helpful customer service rep (yes, the scammers apparently try to seem legit), but some online posters have reported getting partial refunds.

And whether you manage to get the charges reversed or not, you should definitely report it. In Canada, there’s the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services. You can also report it to the official government agency, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

In the US, a good place to start is the Stop Fraud site, the government’s financial fraud enforcement task force.

The most important thing of all, though, is to make a point of carefully checking your phone bill every month. It could make for some very interesting reading.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).