Kate Smith is senior editor for Minnesota Public Radio News.
I woke up recently when my phone chimed with a text just after 1 a.m. Please understand, that's long past my bedtime and that of most of my friends. The text message said my premium download of a brain teaser game would be renewed for $9.99 a month. I could reply "help" or "stop" to cancel.
Help? Cancel what? I had downloaded nothing.
So as the sun came up, I was on the phone talking with two women who work for the company that was promising to renew my download. I came to find out that I'd been "crammed" — and I've learned a lot in a few weeks.
According to the FCC, cramming is what happens when unauthorized, misleading or deceptive charges appear on a telephone bill. Crammers try to trick you into paying for something you don't want and didn't order.
Now back to that phone call. I said I was disputing the charge, and I was almost immediately transferred to a supervisor. I asked for the charge to be deleted from my account.
I then spent nearly a half-hour on the phone with representatives from the company that had crammed me. Their business appears to be sending premium texts to mobile phone numbers and charging $9.99 for the unwanted transaction. A colleague who was crammed in much the same way I was even tried the "reply to stop" function and succeeded only in signing himself up for material he didn't want.
"No" just doesn't mean what it used to.
I was curious about the company and tried everything I could think of to tease out more than just its name. Let's just say that despite my journalistic training, it was a very lopsided interview.
"That's not possible" and "I'm sorry, I can't disclose that information" were the two most common responses. I know, I took notes.
I asked where the company was located. "Our back office location is at a facility in California."
Where in California? Back to the "can't disclose" answer.
"Are you in California?" I asked.
They were good. They'd been trained to give up nothing.
"Where are you?" I asked.
"We are at a location in the Asia Pacific region."
Ultimately I was told that I'd signed up for the product in question on a particular date at a particular time. It was a time when I'm rarely awake.
After more than 20 minutes of conversation, I was told I would receive a refund (after giving the company my mailing address, of course).
Then I did all the responsible things. First, I disputed the charge with my mobile carrier.
Initially, the carrier said it doesn't or can't remove third-party charges. I later learned that the mobile carrier can indeed remove said charges, but only after several layers of communication to verify the facts. I also reported the situation to representatives at the Minnesota attorney general's office and got good advice and support. The office sent letters and follow-ups out to the companies involved.
As for the refund check?
Seven to 10 days, I'd been told. That came and went.
As for the disputed charge on my phone bill?
One day, my phone rang and it was a representative from the corporate offices of my mobile carrier. He'd looked into my case and issued a credit to my account for the amount initially charged as well as for the late fee incurred because I'd refused to pay the disputed charge.
For me the lesson is simple.
Look at your bill, and say something when the total is more than you anticipate or when there are charges you don't understand.
And the text message that started it all? That part actually gives me a little chuckle.
Supposedly, way past my bedtime one night, I signed up for a brain teaser that helps you expand your mind with clever exercises.
Actually I think my brain's gotten much more exercise trying to get to the bottom of the purchase that never happened.