New legislation likely will ease the process for consumers to contest fraudulent charges on their phone bills.
Dubbed the "anti-cramming bill" by author Rep. Mark Hamilton, House Bill 302 passed the House and Senate unanimously and awaits the governor’s signature.
The bill requires phone service providers give customers “the ability to block” nonaffiliated third-party service charges.
Currently, phone companies allow other businesses to charge customers for goods and services via their phone bills. For example, a customer can order Internet service online, which would be charged to the phone bill.
Sometimes, however, customers can find themselves saddled with erroneous expenses on their phone bills.
Hamilton, a Republican from Cumming, said this happened to him.
“I experienced, on two separate occasions totaling 14 months, where I was having long distance services as well as Internet services placed on my phone bill that I knew were not mine,” he said.
“They would take the charge off and then prescribed a very lengthy and difficult process to try to have the service I never ordered to be taken off my phone bill.”
The charges appeared both on Hamilton’s personal and business phone bills.
The second time he noticed the charges was a month or two before the legislative session began in January.
“After not being able to get a satisfactory response from the phone service, I finally decided to drop legislation,” he said. “Once I dropped legislation, I suddenly had the telecommunications industry very willing to talk to me about it.”
Hamilton’s bill has been diluted since it was first introduced. Originally, it said a telecommunications company couldn’t charge a customer for a third-party service until it received written authorization from the customer.
“The telecommunications industry did not want that because that would be a great expense to them,” he said. “We negotiated a compromise.
“Now all you have to do is contact your phone company and tell them that you want that service blocked.”
The bill requires telecommunications companies to provide “the ability to block” third party charges. Hamilton said the consumer-friendly legislation should simplify the process to remove such charges.
Paul Chambers, AT&T district manager, said his company already provides a third party blocking service.
“When a customer has a billing issue, if there’s a question, we will talk to them about their options for blocking any number of charges,” he said. “It depends on our contract with the company.
“If our contract does not call for us to resolve that [usage charge] we give them the name and number of the company that bills them through us.”
Hamilton said some of the charges on his business phone bill were easy to miss. Charges totaling $15 or $20 in a $1,000 bill may not be that noticeable.
“The intention is that you don’t notice it, and that you pay it,” he said. “In my business account, where my phone bill was substantial, this charge would get lost, and so we went several months before we even noticed the charge.”
Chambers said all of AT&T’s customers are encouraged to read and review their bills on a monthly basis, and call with any questions.
“We take any mistakes or errors very seriously and we want to do everything we can,” he said.
Should the governor sign the bill, the law will go into effect Jan. 1, 2010. The gap, Hamilton said, was to provide smaller phone companies time to adjust.
“I think you’ll find that most companies will be proactive in starting this sooner,” he said. “Most of the telecommunications companies were happy to do this because they realized that consumers were being put through a tremendous hassle.”