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Protect Yourself From Phone Scams

There's nothing worse than having to pay a phone bill--unless it's a bill where you've been slammed or crammed. Here are some steps you can take to guard against scams.
July 1, 2000

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:

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.