Scam Alert: Feds accuse T-Mobile of ripping off customers in cramming scheme


scam-alert

In litigation aimed at fraudulent business practices within the mobile telephone industry, the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday accused T-Mobile of making hundreds of millions of dollars by scamming customers with unauthorized text message charges, according to FTC Consumer Protection Director Jessica Rich.

The FTC is seeking a court order to permanently bar T-Mobile from “cramming,” or charging cellphone customers for spam text messages that they did not request or have an interest in receiving.

In a process known as “third-party billing,” carriers such as T-MobileAT&TSprint and Verizon typically place charges on a consumer’s bill for services provided by another company.   In return, the phone company receives a substantial percentage of the amount charged.

When the charges are placed on the bill without the consumer’s authorization, it is known as “cramming.”

T-Mobile — which brands itself as a low-cost alternative to top rivals AT&T and Verizon — received between 35 and 40 percent of the amount it charged customers for the bogus texts subscriptions, thus generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, the FTC alleged.

“It’s wrong for a company like T-Mobile to profit from scams against its customers when there were clear warning signs the charges it was imposing were fraudulent,” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez indicated in a prepared statement. “The FTC’s goal is to ensure that T-Mobile repays all its customers for these crammed charges.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is also launching an investigation into T-Mobile’s billing practices and has the power to level fines against the company if it determines that wrongdoing has occurred.

According to the complaint filed by the FTC, T-Mobile allegedly charged customers for spam texts — “such as flirting tips, horoscope information or celebrity gossip” — at a typical cost of $9.99 per month.  T-Mobile also ignored signs that the text messages were unwanted — such as a large number of customers seeking refunds — and made it difficult to discover and remove the charges.

“Rather than going after T-Mobile, the FTC should focus on the third-party companies that are sending the text messages,” argued T-Mobile CEO John Legere.

“As a single mother, I can hardly afford to pay additional and fraudulent fees,” T-Mobile customer Bina Fink Kohl of Weston told Examiner.  “As a T-Mobile customer, I expect them to be fair and honest in their dealings.  From the litigation, it appears that T-Mobile has been scamming me all along.”

According to T-Mobile, they have already made commitments to stop billing for unwanted spam text messages and issue refunds for unwanted text messages.

“T-Mobile is fighting harder than any of the carriers to change the way the wireless industry operates and we are disappointed that the FTC has chosen to file this action against the most pro-consumer company in the industry rather than the real bad actors,” stated Legere.

According to Jessica Rich of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, the agency and T-Mobile have not been able to reach a settlement on the charges, resulting in the litigation filed Tuesday by the Federal Trade Commission.

“In court we will determine just how much” T-Mobile needs to refund its consumers, but “our evidence to date is that hundreds and millions of dollars are at stake,” Rich said.  “Our first priority is to get the money back to consumers.”

Rich called the charges against T-Mobile — the agency’s first cramming charges against a telecom company — “a new front in [the federal agency’s] longstanding campaign” against wireless cramming.

The T-Mobile case “sends a strong message to other mobile phone companies,” Rich concluded.  “We will continue to bring additional cases to deter this conduct.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission complaint, many of the allegations focus on T-Mobile billing practices, which “made it difficult for consumers to detect that they were being charged, much less by whom.”

Customers would have to scan through several screens online and up to 50 pages of a physical bill to find obscure and fraudulent accounting for the third-party charges, the FTC said.

Among the allegations were that prepaid customers – who do not receive monthly bills – would have the third-party charges deducted automatically.  Once customers discovered the charges and their source, T-Mobile would refuse to fully refund the charges, sometimes directing the customers to contact the third-parties.

“I’m alarmed that T-Mobile is accused of fraudulent billing practices,” Remington Longstreth told Examiner. “I never check my bill completely.  With that said, I don’t expect to be cheated either.”

The federal investigation and complaint against T-Mobile comes at no worse time as the company is reportedly in talks to be bought by Sprint.  This highly-anticipated deal would combine the country’s third- and fourth-largest wireless companies.

Legere concluded by calling the lawsuit against T-Mobile “sensationalized legal action” that is “unfounded and without merit.”

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As a nationally recognized credit repair and identity theft expert, Bill Lewis is principal of William E. Lewis Jr. & Associates, a solutions based professional consulting firm specializing in the discriminating individual, business or governmental entity.

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Target data breach: credit monitoring will not protect you from identity theft


William E. Lewis Jr, Target Data Breach
Target data breach

Attention Target shoppers. Expect more, pay less has brought new meaning as an offer of free credit monitoring may not be enough to prevent identity theft, according to Consumer Reports. The offer of “free” credit monitoring may also give shoppers a false sense of security into believing they are totally protected from identity theft.

Following the massive security breach in December that impacted more than 110 million customers, Target offered “peace of mind” to customers worried about identity theft by providing a free credit monitoring service through one of the nation’s largest credit reporting agencies, Experian.

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to enroll in the Target credit monitoring program.

“The problem is that each of the three major credit bureaus — EquifaxTransUnion, and Experian — can collect different information. So unless you’re checking all of them, you can miss someone trying to steal your identity and open new credit,” said Margot Gilman of Consumer Reports.

Target customers can register for the service — provided by Experian, regardless of whether they have been personally affected by the theft of customer data records at the discount store chain.

The credit monitoring service offered by Experian is an ongoing review of your current credit history. If an identity thief opens a new account using your name and personal information, you will receive an alert by email or text message. What the free credit monitoring service through Experian does not do is to monitor transactions — the actual, day-to-day purchases made on your credit and debit cards. That is something you must do yourself.

The Target data breach allegedly involves the use of active account information and not the opening of new accounts.

“So if I understand this correctly, I’m not protected from identity theft at all,” Bina Fink Kohl, herself an identity theft victim and Target shopper, said. “Sounds like another possible scam. Why would I give my information back to the very company that lost it to start with?”

To protect yourself from new accounts being opened without your permission, Gilman suggests placing a security freeze on their credit profile.

“A security freeze is one of the best protections,” Gilman said. “It blocks access to your credit information and makes it more difficult for a crook to open a new account under your name.”

There is a negative side to a total security freeze, though. Any inquiry into your credit history will be totally blocked, meaning an application for credit, goods, benefits, services and/or employment can be delayed or even denied. The credit freeze remains in place until the consumer removes it for a specific purpose or time frame.

More than 110 million shoppers have been impacted by the Target data breach. Each of them has been offered the free credit monitoring service for 12 months. But — according to Consumer Reports — the “free” service is riddled with defects and enticements.

  • Once consumers enroll in the “free” credit monitoring service, they are enticed with an offer to purchase an Equifax and TransUnion credit report for up to $74 more to supplement the free report provided by Experian. “An Experian ad … pitched me to buy my ‘total credit picture. Why wait? View all three of your credit reports and scores now’ for $14.95.”
  • The type of free credit monitoring offered by Target monitors only one credit reporting agency — Experian — and not the credit history files maintained by Equifax and TransUnion. This a huge disadvantage, as the data reported from the three major credit bureaus can differ significantly across the country.
  • The type of free credit monitoring offered by Target is “old school” as it monitors new account activity and inquiries rather than unauthorized charges to existing accounts. These services are already available through most credit and debit card issuers, especially the major banks and financial institutions.
  • Some of the Experian ads exploit consumers who are ignorant of their rights under federal law. For instance, consumer protection laws already allow identity theft or potential identity theft victims to place a free 90-day fraud alert on their credit report. Placement of the 90-day fraud alert will allow consumers to obtain their credit reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion absolutely free.

“I’m alarmed that Target is providing me with a credit monitoring service that may not fully protect my good name and reputation within the community,” said Remington Longstreth, a frequent Target shopper. “When I first learned of the offer, I immediately signed up. Now I’m left wondering if that was the right thing to do.”

In addition to or as an alternative to the Target credit monitoring service offered by Experian, impacted consumers may protect themselves from potential identity theft.

Periodically review your credit report

By keeping close tabs on your credit report at EquifaxExperian and TransUnion credit reporting agencies, you can detect signs of identity theft early. If you find an account not opened by you and have identified it as fraudulent, enter a dispute directly with the creditor as well as with the credit reporting agencies. You may be required to provide them with a valid police report and FTC Affidavit of Identity Theft.

You can obtain a free credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com or 877-322-8228.

Place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit report

Contact each of the credit reporting agencies and request a 90-day initial fraud alert. Not only will this trigger a free credit report but will advise potential creditors to investigate any application prior to issuing credit or providing services.

Equifax can be contacted at 800-525-6285, Experian at 888-397-3742 and TransUnion at 800-916-8800. Be sure to renew the alert every three months.

Freeze your credit report

Without access to your credit report, identity thieves are frozen in their tracks as creditors will not have access to your credit history. In many states, you are entitled to temporarily “freeze” access to your credit profile without cost if you are over 65 years of age or are a verified victim of identity theft. All others may be required to pay a small fee. Without access to your credit report, no lender will issue credit in your name.

Stop unsolicited credit card or insurance offers

Opting out of pre-screened approval offers for credit or insurance at www.optoutprescreen.com or 888-5OPT-OUT will stop most unsolicited applications and reduce the incidence of identity theft. Opting out refers to the process of removing your name, address and personal identifiers from lists supplied by the Equifax, Experian, TransUnion and Innovis credit reporting agencies to be used for preapproved/prescreened offers of credit or insurance.

“As a single mother, I can hardly afford to lose access to my debit and credit cards let alone become a victim of identity theft,” Target shopper Marina Sweat explained. “I used to shop at Target all the time and although I now shop at Walmart, I’m not any less a target. I’m not happy with the way this whole data breach situation is being handled.”