You're sifting through the mail and come across the phone bill. You tear it open and toss it in the to-be-paid pile. In another three weeks, you'll grab the bill again, scan the amount, cut the check and send it off-just the way a telecommunications scam artist would want you to.
Homebased entrepreneurs wear many hats: marketer, creator of their product or service, even bookkeeper. Time is precious, and sometimes it's easier to pay a bill than to read the fine print.
Bad move, says Susan Grant, director with the National Fraud Information Center, an advice service on telemarketing and online fraud. In the age of scams such as slamming (switching a customer's long-distance service without their knowledge) and cramming (loading a monthly phone bill with expensive-and unrequested-ancillary services like voice mail, caller ID, personal toll-free numbers, and even dating or psychic line fees), not closely reading your phone bill is tantamount to paying off a scam artist, Grant says.
"It's hard to find the time to do all the things we need to do to keep our lives and businesses running smoothly," Grant says. "Nonetheless, you need to look at your phone and credit card bills and make sure you're not being charged erroneously. It's just a fact of life."
Slamming was No. 3 on the list of top telemarketing frauds reported to the National Fraud Information Center in 1999, and cramming was sixth, contributing to a total of $40 billion in consumer losses due to telemarketing fraud. While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has written new laws to protect consumers, and everyone from phone companies to state law enforcement agencies have turned up the heat on the practices, ultimately it's a consumer's responsibility to closely read each month's bill to ensure it's correct, Grant says.
Here are some tips from the National Fraud Information Center on avoiding cramming and slamming:
- The person who pays your phone and credit card bills should know the services you have and the vendors who provide them. Watch for unusual or new charges, and terms like "monthly service fee" or service providers whom you don't recognize.
- If you spot questionable charges, call the company at the number that appears on that portion of your bill. Then call the telephone company that sent you the bill (often your local phone company). Deduct the disputed charges while they're being investigated; pay the rest of the bill on time. If you've been switched to another carrier against your wishes, demand your billing company switch you back with no change fee.
- Be diligent. Even if the charges are corrected or removed, they may show up again in the future. Check your bills carefully every month.
- Inquire with your phone company about "bill blocking" or "freeze" options. These services prevent companies from adding new services to your phone bill unless you've first acknowledged the service directly with the phone company.
- Read contest entry forms, product coupons or other promotional offers to ensure you're not also agreeing to purchase services or change providers.
- Never offer information or immediately agree to any new service offers from a caller claiming to be from the phone company. Get the caller's name and number. Then contact your phone company to confirm the offer is legitimate.
- Closely read your "junk mail." A "negative option" notice could have you signing up for a new service if you don't refuse it from the vendor.
- If you don't recognize a number on your pager or voice mail, don't return the call. Simply dialing that number could result in sign-up for a new service.
While consumers may complain about the ease that scam artists can carry out their crimes, it could well be the price of convenience, Grant says. Years ago, signing up for a new service took place at storefront offices, and not via telephone or the Internet. "There's no failsafe here," Grant says. "This is the cost of being able to do things over the phone or online. And you can be a victim no matter how carefully you try to guard your information."
Journalist and author Jeff Zbarhas worked from home since the 1980s. He writes about home business, teleworking, marketing, communications and other SOHO issues.