Being crammed on phone charges?

He was bothered and a tad suspicious about AT&T putting charges from another company on his bill. It was supposed to be an AT&T bill, wasn't it?

He wanted me to warn people to check their bills. That's always good advice. But some explanations might help, too.

AT&T – and other phone companies – contract with what they call third-party billers. These are usually companies you buy services from – long distance, ringtones, whatever. The phone companies bundle all the bills together for convenience.

But it can be a vehicle for abuse from crammers – businesses that place fictitious charges on your phone bill.

AT&T has to assume that you've actually authorized the charges those third-party billers say you have.

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Attorney General's Office, said the consumer protection division has received 88 complaints about cramming so far this year. That's up from 72 last year. Most of the complaints are connected to land-line phone bills, she said.

Della Bowling, a spokeswoman for AT&T, thinks complaints are up because customers are paying more attention.

Bowling said if you don't recognize a charge, you should call AT&T. The phone company is contractually obligated to tell you to first try to resolve the issue with the other company. If you can't, you will have the heft of AT&T on your side, she said.

As long as AT&T knows you're disputing the charge, the company won't cut off your phone service if you don't pay the third-party bill.

Does AT&T police those billers?

“We're always reviewing and evaluating any allegations against third party billing,” she said. “We have a variety of remedies which would include termination of contracts.”

Which brings me back to my caller. His fee came from ILD Teleservices, a Florida company. ILD's spokeswoman, Ilona Olayan, said ILD processes payments for a variety of merchants including directories, Web hosting services and online entertainment services.

She said ILD removes disputed charges but added that most are authorized – by someone. “When you're signing your name on anything, know what you're signing,” she said. “When you sign up for a raffle or drawing, make sure you understand all the conditions. Look at the front, the back and all the fine print.”

Do that with your bills, too.