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Updated: April 01, 2000
Checking Your Phone Bill
A brochure describing how to check your monthly phone bill in order to save money and prevent telephone fraud. This publication includes a list explaining the different charges you will probably find on your bill, information about your rights as a telephone customer, and what to do if you have a complaint about your service.
Don't you wish that your phone bill was easy to read, had fewer pages, was better organized and featured simple explanations of all charges? Millions of people hate to read their monthly phone bills and many just don't bother. That's a big problem, because mistakes and fraudulent charges can creep into phone bills. If you don't look for erroneous charges and ask to have them removed, you could be throwing your money away.
By reviewing your phone bill carefully, you may save money and avoid unnecessary expenses. A careful review of your bill does not need to take long, and can help you to:
See exactly what you're paying for.
Avoid rip-offs and phone fraud.
Know your rights
In late 1999, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) put new Truth-in-Billing rules in place to make phone bills easier to understand. In response to that action, phone companies are redesigning their bills and explaining charges in plain language.
The government concluded that if phone bills are easier to understand, it will help stamp out fraud. There are two major types of phone fraud:
- "Slamming"- unauthorized switching of your phone service to another company.
- "Cramming"- billing for services or products which were never ordered and/or never received.
To prevent slamming, the name of any new phone service provider must be highlighted on your bill, to help you see if your carrier has been changed without your consent. To combat cramming, the government requires "full and non-misleading descriptions" of all billed services as well as clear identification of the company responsible for the charges.
Bills must also note when it's possible to withhold payment for a disputed charge without risking disconnection of your basic phone service.
One bill or two?
Many consumers receive a local phone company bill that also includes long distance carrier charges. However, some long distance companies send separate bills.
If more than one company's charges are included in the bill, the first page should list the total charges from each company. Each company that bills you through the local phone company will itemize its charges on another page. You will receive a separate page for each company that bills you, such as charges from a 10-10 dial-around company or discount collect call carrier. Names and toll-free phone numbers for all companies must be included.
Reviewing your bill
Phone companies rely on you---the customer---to raise questions about charges you don't recognize. The companies acknowledge that your careful review of your bills is the most effective weapon against billing fraud and errors. Follow these steps:
- Check the total amount due, payment received and due date for new charges. If the total due seems high, make sure your last payment was credited.
- Look at the summary of charges for each company in the phone bill. Read each line of the summary, and then turn to the section that breaks down the charges for each line:
- Run down the list of itemized calls to see if you recognize all the numbers.
- Make sure you are charged only for calls you or a member of your household made.
- Review all services you are charged for and ask yourself if you ordered and need these services.
- Check your calling plans to make sure they continue to give you the best value.
- Call the company that charged you if there are questions about any item on its part of the bill.
To dispute an item, call the company assessing the charges using the phone number listed on its part of the bill. Your local phone company may also be able to help you resolve disputes with the other companies included in its bill.
Understanding all charges
In order to review your bill, you need to understand the different types of charges. Below you'll find general definitions of some of the terms used in billing statements for local and long distance services. (Your phone company might use different names for some of these charges.)
Local phone company charges
Monthly charge for basic phone service. Most local phone companies offer two kinds of basic service. You can choose to pay a flat rate for unlimited local calls (check your phone directory to seeyour local calling area). If you don't make many local calls, you may be able to choose a lower cost plan that charges you only for the calls you make. You also will pay a monthly charge for each line you have, including those for additional phones, faxes and Internet connections (modem lines).
Itemized "local toll" calls. Calls that are not within your local calling area, but are not considered long distance calls, are "intraLATA" or local toll calls. (Check your phone directory to see which calls in your area are local toll calls.) You are charged for each local toll call, usually by the minute.
Calling plans. If you make a lot of local toll calls, consider a flat rate calling plan. For example, a local toll calling plan may provide you with 100 minutes for a monthly fee of $6. (After you have made 100 minutes of calls, you will be charged a per-minute rate for each call.) You will pay the full fee even if you make less than 100 minutes of calls. Add up the itemized local toll calls on recent bills to see if a calling plan will save you money. Some bills will show you the amount you saved using the calling plan.
Optional extra services. It is your decision whether or not to order these. Extra services cost money, and you can add a lot to the cost of your phone service by ordering them. These are some services that local companies charge extra for:
- Call waiting - when you are on the phone, a click or beep lets you know that you have another call. You can put your caller on hold and speak to the new caller without hanging up on the first caller.
- Call forwarding - sends your calls to another number of your choice when you are away from home.
- Caller ID (caller identification) lets you see the name and telephone number of many callers on a screen.
Installation. The charge for turning on your phone service.
Wire maintenance plans. Inside wiring is the wiring that goes from the phone company's line to your phone, including the jack. Phone companies offer optional inside wiring repair plans for a monthly fee. Basic inside wiring plans do not cover your phone or the phone cord.
Equipment charges. Buying a phone is less expensive than renting one. Yet many people pay leased phone charges even when they no longer have a leased phone. If you don't want a leased phone, make sure you're not paying for one.
Local phone company surcharges:
Federal line charge or FCC subscriber line charge (SLC). Local phone companies charge this fee to cover the cost of the phone line that connects your home to the phone network. They charge $3.50 each month for the first line, but this charge rises to about $6 for each additional line. In May 2000, the FCC approved a plan that will raise the $3.50 charge to $6.50 over a five year-period.
Number portability charge. As local phone service becomes competitive and you have choices of providers, many people will shop around for the best deal. This charge allows the phone companies to build a system that will allow you to keep your number when you switch companies.
Calling card calls. Calls made with your local phone company calling card are summarized in a separate section of your bill. The charges are shown along with the number you called and the number you called from. (If you have a calling card from your long distance company, its charges will appear on part of your long distance bill.)
Operator-assisted calls. Calls that you place with an operator's help are itemized separately. In almost all cases, operated-assisted calls are much more expensive than calls you dial yourself.
Directory assistance (information or 411). A charge for calls to obtain phone numbers. For local listings, stick to 411, which costs about 50¢ or less per call and may include a few free calls each month.
Late charges and returned check fees. If your payment is not received by the due date shown on the bill, you may be billed for a late charge. If your check bounces, you will be assessed a returned check fee.
Touch-tone service charge. Despite the fact that touch tone is the industry standard, many local phone companies still charge $1-$2 monthly on each line for touch tone service.
Fees, taxes and surcharges
Do not take it for granted that the phone company is charging the right amount for state, local and federal taxes and surcharges. Check with your phone company periodically so that you remain up-to-date about current charges. The federal Truth-in-Billing rules require that all fees, taxes and surcharges be clearly labeled using standard wording.
In most cases, you cannot dispute or avoid paying valid taxes and government-required fees and surcharges. However, mistakes can happen. For instance, bogus charges may be disguised as taxes or government-required fees. Ask about any unfamiliar or unreasonable amounts to make sure you are not being overcharged.
Long distance company charges
Long distance calls. These calls, which can include local toll, in-state, state-to-state and international calls, will be itemized on your bill.
Optional calling plans. If you make more than a few long distance calls each month, consider enrolling in a calling plan to save money. There are special discount calling plans for local toll, in-state, state-to-state and international calls. (For calling plans with monthly fees, take the fee into account to make sure you are eally saving money on your calls.)
Monthly minimum charges. Some companies require you to pay a minimum amount each month for long distance calls. For example if your long distance carrier has a $3 monthly minimum and you place a total of $2 in calls, you will be charged $3 that month. But if you make $3 or more in calls, you will pay for only the calls you make.
Calling card calls. Any calls you make using your calling card are summarized in a separate section of your bill. The charges are shown along with the number you called and the number from which you placed the call.
Operator-assisted calls. Calls that you place with an operator's help are itemized separately. These calls cost much more than those you dial directly.
Universal service charge, universal connectivity charge. This charge---a flat fee of about $1.50 or a percentage of the total charges---is for "universal service funding," to reimburse the company for charges it must pay to provide affordable phone and Internet service to rural and low income consumers, schools and libraries.
Directory assistance (information). The fee for looking up long distance numbers. You can dial the area code + 555-1212 or use an alternative directory access service. Many local and long distance phone companies also offer national directory assistance.
900 pay-per-call services. These services have special charges for each call to them. The charges appear on your phone bill and can cost any amount. If you don't want your phone to be used to reach pay-per-call lines, ask your local phone company to block your access to these lines.
You right to dispute charges
You have the right to dispute any questionable charges you find on your phone bill. These include:
- Calls you didn't make. If you don't recognize a number, the phone company will tell you whom it belongs to.
- Misdialed calls or wrong numbers. Call immediately for credit when you misdial or call a wrong number.
- Services you didn't order.
- Services that didn't work or were not delivered.
- Payments that were not credited.
- Unauthorized/disputed pay-per-call services.
- Bills or charges from unfamiliar companies.
If you can't resolve the dispute with the company before the due date, you may have to pay the disputed charge to avoid disconnection. Your bill should indicate when you don't have to pay the disputed charge up front. If the charge is in error, you should receive a credit on a future bill.
Consumer protection - State
Each state has a public utilities commission or public service commission that regulates local phone service and responds to consumer complaints. Look in your local phone directory or check out the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners' Web site (www.naruc.org) for a listing of all state agencies.
You can also report slamming or cramming complaints to your state attorney general's office. (Look up the number in your local phone directory.)
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Informal Complaints/Public Inquiries
Mail Stop 1600A2
2025 M Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20554
Non-profit consumer groups
Consumer Action's referral and advice switchboard (1-415-777-9635 and 1-213-624-8327) and its web site (www.consumer-action.org) provide information and resources on reading your phone bill and preventing and dealing with phone fraud. Chinese, English and Spanish spoken by hotline counselors. Please leave a message and a counselor will return your call. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The National Consumers League web site (www.natlconsumersleague.org) provides information about phone charges.
The National Fraud Information Center, a project of the National Consumers League, helps consumers recognize and file complaints about telephone fraud through its toll-free hotline at (800) 876-7060. Its web site (www.fraud.org) features information to help consumers avoid becoming victims of fraud.
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Produced by Consumer Action
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