Parenting: Cell phone warning

David Murphy noticed funky fees for cell phone subscriptions he and his kids did not order.

May 16, 2012 8:05:57 AM PDT
Here's one for parents who have children with cell phones. Tell them to be on the look-out for strange text messages that come from people or businesses they don't recognize. If they get one of these messages, they should delete it, tell you - and you should immediately check your bill.

I found out about this problem the hard way. My cell phone bill has been fluctuating in recent months because we added a line for one kid and another got a smart phone. So initially, I wasn't too bothered by a couple of higher bills.

Who has time to sift through those 15-page family plan bills looking for the source of every miniscule charge, right? It's even easier for me to ignore them since my bill automatically transfers to a credit card for payment. However, ignoring the details was a bad idea, as it turns-out.

When a recent bill camen in rather high, I got curious. After pouring through pages upon pages of text message records, taxes and fees for five different phones, I spotted the problem. A series of $9.99 "monthly subscriptions" were buried in the bill, occurring on several different lines, none of them looking familiar and all of them absolutely unwanted and unsolicited.

Some were on my kids' phones and one was on my wife's line. When I asked everybody about it, they all reported receiving text messages from these outfits which they claim they deleted. But somehow, all of these services had been added to our account as monthly subscriptions.

Quick Fix

A call to my service provider, lengthy as it was, cleared-up the mess. The past 60 days of bogus charges were refunded immediately and earlier charges were handled in the form of a credit to my account.

The problem was also explained to me. According to my service provider, the companies behind these messages send-out texts randomly to thousands of numbers. Opening the text sends a signal back to the firm which then attaches a bill to the cell phone. Sometimes, I'm told, even simply deleting the message isn't enough to avoid the unwanted charge. If this sounds pretty predatory to you, I'm right there with you.

During my service call, my provider offered me a free "3rd Party Payment Blocker" feature to all of my family's phones that is supposed to prevent this from happening again. The blocker does not affect the purchase of apps or anything else I seek to purchase, only third party purchases of this specific sort.

Stay Focused

My advice is to always check the cell phone bill and read through it slowly, looking for charges similar to those that I've pictured at the top of this blog. You're looking for monthly subscriptions you did not order. They could be for everything from ring-tone subscriptions to professional or personal advice services.

I'd also recommend having a blocker applied to your account and that you keep up the bill inspection routine afterwards in case the companies behind this sort of practice come-up with a work-around.

Finally, tell your kids to keep you informed of anything unusual going-on with their phones, especially weird, errant messages. Since it's the kids who often do the most texting, it may be easier for a predatory text to slide-in amid all their other traffic - to start the scam.

---David Murphy

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