Society

Deadline Looms For Verizon, Sprint Customers To Claim 'Cramming' Refunds

| by Nik Bonopartis
Smarthphone.Smarthphone.

Are you a Verizon or Sprint customer who got unfairly hit with charges for things like horoscopes, ringtones and sports scores on your monthly cellphone bill?

If so, you're entitled to a piece of the $158 million settlement from a class action suit against the two telecom giants, but only if you request your refund by Dec. 31.

In March, Verizon and Sprint settled the lawsuit, which took the mobile companies to task for a practice called "cramming," which added services and charges to monthly phone bills without the consent of customers. Often, those cramming services lure customers through online ads which promise to provide free content in exchange for users entering their cellphone numbers, USA Today reported.

That results in unauthorized charges, which are often deceptively described on phone bills as "service fees" or monthly charges, according to the Federal Communications Commission. As many as 20 million customers are victimized by cramming every year, according to FCC estimates, but only 1 in 20 customers realize the extra charges are from third-party companies siphoning cash from their phone bills.

Cramming has been lucrative for Verizon and Sprint, the USA Today report said: Verizon received a 30 percent cut on third-party charges, while Sprint received a 35 percent cut.

"Consumers rightfully expect their monthly phone bills will reflect only those services that they's purchased," Travis LeBlanc, who leads the FCC's enforcement bureau, wrote in a statement earlier this year after the mobile companies agreed to settle the lawsuit.

Sprint and Verizon aren't the only carriers to run afoul of the FTC for cramming -- in 2014, AT&T agreed to pay $105 million in a similar settlement, and T-Mobile settled a cramming lawsuit for $112 million, according to CNN and the Consumerist.

Customers can protect themselves from cramming by looking closely at their phone bills, particularly for small charges with ambiguous descriptions like "mail server," "membership" or "other fees." Most cramming comes in small increments, charges like $.99 or $1.99 that customers are likely to overlook, the FTC says, but some companies tack on as much as $15 per month for things like "free" wallpaper app subscriptions, celebrity gossip texts and flirting tips.

As part of the settlements, Sprint and Verizon will also follow new FTC directives regarding the controversial cramming practice, including obtaining consent from customers for third-party charges, detailing those charges clearly on monthly bills, and telling customers how to block third-party charges on their accounts.

Cellphone users can file complaints with the FTC by calling 1-888-225-5322.

Verizon customers can request refunds by visiting www.CFPBSettlementVerizon.com. Sprint customers can request refunds by visiting www.SprintRefundPSMS.com, or by calling 1-877-389-8787.

Sources: FTC, FCC, NBC News, CNN, The Consumerist, USA Today / Photo source: Wikimedia Commons