Most Americans who receive any form of local or long distance phone service can expect a several page bill, even for the most limited and simplistic of packages, featuring arcane sounding terms like "Federal Subscriber Line Charge" and "EAC Rate Svc." Complex and confounding statements from everything from Credit Card to your Satellite TV providers have become commonplace in the American experience, enough so that thousands will dutifully toss off a check for whatever is listed next to "amount due" and be done with the entire accursed mess.
And that's just what "they" want you to do.
"They" of course, are service providers. Phone, cable, credit, electrical - whatever the product, there is money to be made in the subtlety and nuance of obfuscated charges and mysterious line items. It is a technique pioneered by the nation's more unsavory credit card companies charges Elizabeth Warren, professor of bankruptcy law at Harvard Law School.1 Profit margins on customers who religiously pay their bills on time are thin indeed, but a tidy sum can be made by charging those same diligent bill-payers an obscure and unsubstantiated fee. Most, Warren asserts, will skip right over the cryptic charge and pay the bill as usual, and even those that take note are likely to have little patience with long hold times, random transfers, and maddeningly inept phone menu systems.
From 1996 to 2003, Credit Card Company revenues from fees
more than quadrupled, to $7.7 billion2 and today they are larger still. Where pioneers find profit, the marketplace as a whole is quick to follow and while Credit Cards continue to lead the way, customer advocacy groups allege fraudulent charges on all manner of other bills and services.
By way of example, Verizon Communications, a telephone and data services company operating landlines throughout much of the Eastern United States, has drawn a glut of complaints from customers over third-party charges. The underlying structure of national telephone networks allows third parties to charge telephone accounts and collect those charges through the service provider, which then offloads the charge onto the customer. While this makes Verizon a more sympathetic participant in the entire sordid mess, it does little to defray the cost of the fraudulent charges passed on to Verizon's customers.
The practice of inserting these charges is called "cramming," and it has attracted the ire of Verizon, AT&T, and SBC customers from New York to Virginia. In one fairly prevalent scam, charges are "crammed" into the bill by charging the account for receiving fictitious collect calls or else for using a cleverly disguised and massively marked up directory assistance line. The additions often appear under a heading like "Miscellaneous Charges and Credits," typically under the official sounding auspices of the "Operator Assistance Network." An average "call" plus a vague and poorly defined "USF Carrier Admin Fee" and tax runs the typical customer about $7.50: hardly a fortune, but multiplied over potentially thousands of phone bills, a tidy sum nonetheless.
Local phone companies plead that they have no option but to push the charges through under existing laws, but little is being done to either inform or defend thescam's victims from further abuse. What few customers manage to conform to the absurd support hours, penetrate the infuriating voice driven telephone menu systems, and suffer the extended wait times featured by Verizon and other local phone providers are met with disappointment. Even after repeated requests, Verizon refuses to credit the charge back to its customers, referring them to a complaint line for the "Operator Assistance Network" instead.
Suspiciously, the OAN's questions line runs like a well oiled machine. Wait times are almost non-existent and the call center employees are over-eager to void the charge from a customer's phone bill - often doing so before even being asked. Even so, while waiting for the tech to complete the void request, customers may expect a lengthy and protracted explanation of why the "10 15 15 800" (typically appearing on phone bills as a call to 101-515-8000) service under contention is so desirable - a masterfully crafted sales pitch by any stretch of the imagination. Contentious customers may wish to ask that the service be blocked from their phones in the future. OAN will generally comply with this request without complaint.
Expect to wait two months for any promised credit to appear for a contested charge.