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Tuesday, July 01, 2014
FTC Accuses T-Mobile For Bogus Charges

T-Mobile US became the target of a federal investigation and lawsuit Tuesday amid allegations that it bilked potentially hundreds of millions of dollars from its customers in fraudulent charges.

In a complaint filed today, the Federal Trade Commission is charging T-Mobile USA, Inc., with making hundreds of millions of dollars by placing charges on mobile phone bills for purported "premium" SMS subscriptions that, in many cases, were bogus charges that were never authorized by its customers.

The FTC alleges that T-Mobile received anywhere from 35 to 40 percent of the total amount charged to consumers for subscriptions for content such as flirting tips, horoscope information or celebrity gossip that typically cost $9.99 per month. According to the FTC's complaint, T-Mobile in some cases continued to bill its customers for these services offered by scammers years after becoming aware of signs that the charges were fraudulent.

"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," said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. "The FTC's goal is to ensure that T-Mobile repays all its customers for these crammed charges."

In a process known as "third-party billing," a phone company places charges on a consumer's bill for services offered by another company, often receiving 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."

The FTC's complaint alleges that in some cases, T-Mobile was charging consumers for services that had refund rates of up to 40 percent in a single month. The FTC has alleged that because such a large number of people were seeking refunds, it was an obvious sign to T-Mobile that the charges were never authorized by its customers. As the complaint notes, the refund rate likely significantly understates the percentage of consumers who were crammed. The complaint also states that internal company documents show that T-Mobile had received a high number of consumer complaints at least as early as 2012.

The complaint against T-Mobile alleges that the company's billing practices made it difficult for consumers to detect that they were being charged, much less by whom.

The complaint also alleges that T-Mobile's full phone bills, which can be longer than 50 pages, made it nearly impossible for consumers to find and understand third-party subscription charges.

According to the complaint, the information would be listed there in an abbreviated form, such as "8888906150BrnStorm23918," that did not explain that the charge was for a recurring third-party subscription supposedly authorized by the consumer. In addition, the complaint notes that consumers who use pre-paid calling plans do not receive monthly bills, and as a result the subscription fee was debited from their pre-paid account without their knowledge.

When consumers were able to determine they were being charged for services they hadn't ordered, the complaint alleges that T-Mobile in many cases failed to provide consumers with full refunds. Indeed, the FTC charged that T-Mobile refused refunds to some customers, offering only partial refunds of two months' worth of the charges to others, and in other cases instructed consumers to seek refunds directly from the scammers ? without providing accurate contact information to do so.

The complaint also notes that in some cases, T-Mobile claimed that consumers had authorized the charges despite having no proof of consumers doing so.

The FTC's complaint seeks a court order to permanently prevent T-Mobile from engaging in mobile cramming and to obtain refunds for consumers and disgorgement of T-Mobile's ill-gotten gains.

T-Mobile has responded to the FTC's allegations and claims them to be "unfounded and without merit." Further, the company claims that "In fact T-Mobile stopped billing for these Premium SMS services last year and launched a proactive program to provide full refunds for any customer that feels that they were charged for something they did not want. 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."

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