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Verizon may owe you money


Verizon may owe you money—or at least a credit toward your bill.

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you.

If you had a landline account with the telecommunications giant from April 27, 2006, to Feb. 28, 2012, you were part of a class-action suit that was recently settled out of court.

The suit alleged that Verizon illegally billed landline phone customers for unauthorized charges from third-party companies in violation of federal and state law.

The practice is better known as “cramming,” because third parties have slipped, or “crammed,” their bills into already confusing telephone bills in hopes consumers will overlook the charges and pay for services they didn’t authorize or receive—or that cost more than they were led to believe.

Fredericksburg computer software engineer Win Harrington, for example, spotted a mysterious $12.95 charge from Enhanced Services Billing, or ESBI, on the bill for his home phone last year. He called Verizon and was told that there had been similar complaints from numerous other customers about the third-party billing company, which is based in Lewes, Del.

When Harrington contacted ESBI, he was told he was being charged for My Info Guard, a Clearwater, Fla., company that charges a monthly fee for providing a personal 800 number and private voicemail box. Neither he nor his wife, Carla Harrington, remembered ordering it.

He asked for a copy of the application his wife had supposedly signed, and what he was sent was full of errors. Not only was the monthly charge listed as $2 more than he was actually being billed, but the form had the wrong maiden name for Carla Harrington and was dated Dec. 31, 1969. She was only 9 that year.

“It was pretty obvious that something shady was going on,” Win Harrington said. “I said, ‘I don’t think I signed up for this.’”

Verizon has denied any wrongdoing in the class-action lawsuit, but agreed to settle to avoid further litigation. If you were included in the class-action suit, you can get a refund for what you paid in unauthorized third-party charges by submitting a claims form by Nov. 15.

The payments will be either $40 in the case of approved flat-payment claims or the full amount of unauthorized third-party charges. Some class members may have a claim for less than $40.

You can obtain claim forms and a free summary of all unauthorized third-party charges on your bills by either visiting or calling 877/772-6219. Verizon has the option to provide a credit on current customers’ bills. Otherwise, they will receive a check in the mail.

Harrington doesn’t plan to apply. He received a refund after complaining to both ESBI and Virginia’s State Corporation Commission. But the experience convinced him to warn others about the need to check their bills, he said.

Cramming is one of the most frequent complaints about landline phone bills that the Federal Communications Commission handles. It occurs when telephone companies allow third parties to place charges on their consumers’ telephone bills just as if they were credit or debit card accounts number.

Each year, an estimated 15 million to 20 million households have received crammed charges for everything from yoga classes and cosmetics to diet products and psychic hot-line memberships on their phone bills, according to the FCC. Third-party billing—the practice that enables most cramming—is a $2 billion-a-year industry.

Earlier this year the FCC made it tougher for third parties to cram unsuspecting victims’ phone bills by strengthening the Truth-in-Billing rules. They now require all telecommunications common carriers to place any charges from third parties for non-telecommunications services (including Internet and video services) in a distinct section of the telephone bill separate from all carrier charges.

Carriers also must separately subtotal each section and clearly and conspicuously display the subtotals on the payment page of paper bills and an equivalent location on electronic bills. Each telephone bill must also clearly and conspicuously identify any change in service provider.

Carriers that allow subscribers to block third-party charges from appearing on telephone bills must clearly and conspicuously notify subscribers of this option at the point of sale, on each telephone bill and on the carrier’s website.

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407