Are You Getting Charged by a Text Message Scam?

By Xin Lu on 16 March 2012 (Updated 11 March 2013) 24 comments
Photo: riaz kanani

Recently, I started to receive some spam text messages. Then I got a text that was more disconcerting. It said that I signed up for a $9.99-a-month service called Bingoroo, which I never did, and welcomed me to the service. (See also: Living Without a Landline)

I was a bit confused, so I looked up the company name in the text message — it's some text message bingo game. Their website says that you have to text them to subscribe, and I never did. So called AT&T customer service to ask what this is all about.

The AT&T customer service representative was very apologetic and told me that this is a third party company that is using the AT&T direct billing system to sell their content. I asked her how I can get rid of it. She said that this happens often and told me that I have to text STOP to them right away, and if I do get a $9.99 charge on my bill, I should call them back to get rid of the charge. Also, in her system she did see that the subscription is active even though I did not purchase it.

Here is what is really scary — I asked the AT&T employee if any of these SMS content companies could just bill me if they had my phone number, and her answer was yes. Then I asked what would have happened if I hadn't read my text and replied STOP, and her answer was that basically they would keep on charging me through my wireless bill. Essentially, for these text message services, having someone's phone number is as good as having their credit card, especially if the victim is someone who does not even use texting and just ignores the messages.

I asked the representative how I could prevent these schemes, and she told me that there is actually a free-purchase blocker option that I could set up for my lines. However, this option is only available to technical support as part of parental controls, and there is no option on AT&T's website to turn it on. I told her that I would like to set it up for all my lines. This means all automatic purchases through SMS will be blocked, but AT&T will issue me a PIN that can be used in case I want to make any purchases. Also, AT&T will cancel all current subscriptions.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

After this ordeal I researched premium SMS scams a bit, and they can come in many forms. There are actually many mobile phone apps that are disguised as games but actually sign people up to these useless services that charge a monthly fee. However, most service providers have an option to block content purchases. Here are a few tips to stop yourself from being a premium SMS scam victim.

  1. Check your phone bill and content subscriptions, and make sure everything is what you ordered. If you have AT&T, premium subscriptions can be checked on their Manage Mobile Purchases & Downloads page.
     
  2. Read your spam texts and text STOP immediately to messages that say you've signed up for something. According to the AT&T customer service representative, this gives the phone company a record when you unsubscribed, so when you contest the charges, you have them on your side.
     
  3. Contest any charges for services you did not purchase as soon as you can. I've read some stories that some people have been charged hundreds of dollars over years of being victimized.
     
  4. Turn on premium content blocking with your phone company so that purchases through texting can be only made by you with your PIN.

Hopefully in the future I will not have to deal with unauthorized SMS purchases again, but it really bothers me that the phone company knows that this is going on, yet still allows the offending companies to be operating on their network.

What do you think? Have you experienced a premium SMS scam?

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Guest's picture
Thad P

This seems wide open to abuse. I would think the wireless carriers would find it in their best interest to make it more difficult for this to happen. Thanks for bringing it up.

Guest's picture
Erica

Yes, this recently happened to me too with AT&T. I have text messaging blocked on my service, but I saw it on my bill. They were able to refund it and blocked all future charges.

Guest's picture

This happened to my husband a few years ago (and he doesn't even have a smart phone). I called Verizon, who stopped the billing and reversed the charges (after I called three times!).

Most of this is due to third-party billing through the cell phones companies. I find it RIDICULOUS and am pretty sure the cell companies only allow it because they must be getting something in return. Why in the world would I want to get charges on my cell phone bill from someone *not* my cell phone company? (I've been told that donating money is a good reason, but good grief, I'll find another way!) I asked them to turn that feature off, and haven't had a problem since.

Guest's picture
uRabbit

Since signing up for prepaid phones instead of our iPhone plans, I have noticed a LOT of scams coming thru. Guess AT&T (and others) don't do much to protect their prepaid users...

Guest's picture
Pedro

This happened to my family recently. I found over a $200 of charges on my AT&T bill. However, AT&T customer service was surprisingly helpful and was able to waive all the charges, and set it up to block all future charges.

Guest's picture
Guest

I am sorry that the representative you spoke with was not more pro-active. It's possible you were routed to a department that did not have system access to that particular function; however, I would like to amend your article: on the majority of devices, you do actually have direct control over those free purchase blocks & other parental controls through your device by going into your browser or media net settings, & all AT&T Customer Care representatives have direct access to a system to cancel, refund, & block all purchases billed to your mobile account. There is a delay in receiving the refund (posts at the end of the current billing cycle) as these are third-party purchases. You may get transferred to a higher level technician if you have an iPhone & want to choose what digits your PIN will be. AT&T is actively working with the FCC to resolve this issue. This content is my personal information/opinion & while I've done my best to state only facts, it is not an official statement, nor does it mean to imply an opinion of AT&T or its affiliate/subsidiary companies.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

Hi Guest, I do have an iPhone, and just from AT&T's website they said to call 611 to turn on purchase blocker and that's what I did. It's possible that other phones have a setting that blocks these but mine definitely didn't. I just didn't know that charging people by texting was even possible like this.

Guest's picture

There are a lot of sketchy apps and games out there, make sure you check the user feedback before you download anything to your phone.

I've seen people getting spam notifications on their smart phones, not in the form of text messages but up in the notifications bar. You can download the AirPush Detector app for free to detect which app is forcing in the notification spam, then delete both!

Guest's picture
angered

This is so backwards! Your telephone account should not BY DEFAULT be a credit card account. You should have to issue permission to have third party charges on it, not to keep them off. I have never given my phone company permission to be third party for charges and never will. My only agreement with them is to provide cell phone service. That is not the purpose of my phone, it is not the represented purpose of the account when I opened it, and it should not be allowed unless SPECIFICALLY AUTHORIZED by me to the phone company itself. It really angers me that I have to monitor my bill for this.

Guest's picture
Guest

Amusing in a warped kind of way to see this.

I am writing from the UK and exactly the same scam is being attempted, with the same attempt to transfer responsibility to the punter to stop the texts. In fact, some operators in the UK even say "prove you did NOT agree to remove these chargeable texts" - as if you could prove a negative.

There is a small claims court procedure in the UK, doesn't need a lawyer + is v low fee. I very much doubt that any network provider could defend their stance. Do you have something similar in the US?

Guest's picture
Guest

For three months I have gone to a customer service representative with AT&T about these direct bill charges. My latest statement had $238.79 charges for ringtones & downloads that I did not sign up for. My last visit to customer service resulted in informing the rep that the charges are unacceptable. They offered to reduce the charges but not eliminate them. I was furious and threaten to cancel my four wireless lines. They said that the charges would follow me. I don't know how that could be if I no longer had the phones. They finally eliminated the charges and informed me that any charges after that date would be my responsibility. They put blockers on all my phones. Today my daughter got a free text message from AT&T stating tha she had over $50 in direct bill charges. AT&T knows this goes on. They allow it. They make money off of it!!!! I'm seriously considering getting a lawyer and filing a class action suit against these bogus companies. Believe me, AT&T knows who they are. These are losers charging innocent people $10.00 a pop and blaming it on the individual consumer. We have a right to text without having our phone bills hacked.

Guest's picture
Guest

Bingoroo did this to me too! Maybe we should file a class action lawsuit.

Guest's picture
JC

I have an iPhone under AT&T and this bingoroo scammed me for 8 months straight. Whenever I try to text back stop it will spam me more. This is ruthless an it really angered me. I was surprised that AT&T support was very helpful and refunded me all the money charged without any much questions and help setup the purchase blocker. Right after I hung up I received text messages from bingoroo again telling about the subscription. The more I text stop the more messages I get. It's been about 4 hours now since I spoke to AT&T when I'm writing this letter and I already received 29 total messages from bingoroo flooding my SMS. Don't tell me to try 7726 because I did and all it tells me is to text stop to 30211. I think this really qualifies for some class action lawsuit. I'm open to any lawyers out there and I saved all evidences that we will need.

Guest's picture
serenity

this has happened to me twice. the first company did not offer a refund, the second one did, but I have yet to see the check now 4 wks later. I have Tmobile and they will charge me $4.99 per month to block these issues... it's a loose -loose for me.

Guest's picture
Outraged

My wife pays the cell bill. I happened to look at it when considering an upgrade and noticed $500+ of fraudulent charges over am 8 month period. ATT would only reverse 60 days of charges ($70). I asked for a supervisor and they gave me a $25 credit. We never consented to any charges. ATT was rude about it. $105 of the charges were for ATT Family Map AFTER we cancelled that service 7 months ago. They only refunded $30 of that and told me to contact locationlabs.com even though Family Map is an ATT service. I have had a 5 phone plan with ATT for 15+ years. Finally they gave me another $100 credit and $30 off of the bill for the next 6 months. Even so, I am paying $970 to cancel and move to Verizon. Verizon will give me $1000 for my used phones but I might have to pay $1000 for 5 iphone5s. All these scammers need is your cell # and the cooperation of ATT. It took me an hour to block "Mobile downloads" because you must do it by calling - not on the web or on your phone menu. ATT WANTS you to pay those charges. I feel violated and I will no longer participate even though I have been a customer and a stockholder since 1983. Yes, I will also sell my stock.

Guest's picture
Guest

Thank you for this blog. This was the most helpful information I found and it saved me from getting charged. I really appreciate it!

Guest's picture
Ed T

Just returned from the ATT store, regarding these bogus charges and others. HERE'S THE BOTTOM LINE, AT&T DOESN'T CARE ABOUT THEIR CUSTOMERS. They have to charge and then transfer funds to these scammers AND THEY DO IT! Please wake up America, corporations don't care about you or your LOYALITY. I told AT&T to cancel my 4 lines (after 21 years of unlimited plans) and the rep reply was OK. I'm sure the others won't be any better but I know AT&T doesn't care!!!!

Guest's picture
Guest

I had the same thing happen on my T-Mobile account. The scammers were "My Wireless30211". No idea how they got to my number. But set up the purchase blocker now too. What a bunch of scam artists out there.

Guest's picture
Guest

This is the EXACT charge on my tmobile account. Same month as well. Ridiculous.

Guest's picture
steffen

I was with T mobile on pas as you go for 10 years. I finally went on contract on 30 nov 2012 for a fee of £10.50 per month as i hardly use my phone except to call family. I started recieving these spam text messages on 1st december 2012 the following day. I never ever recieved these spam texts when i was pay as you go. My first T mobile bill came in at £37.50!!! I rang T mobile and they sent me an itemised breakdown of my bill and all the extra charges were from the scam texts!! T mobile refused to block these third parties. I honestly believe T mobile sold my phone number to these scammers, and get a cut from the charges. I have gone back on pay as you go with another network provider and have never recieved another spam text, T mobile refused to cancel my contract and so i have to pay them £10.50 a month until november for a service that i dont use.

Guest's picture
jimmy

Just got my February bill and had a $10 charge for "my wireless30211" Called Tmo and they refunded the charge, and put the blocker on my account. The funny thing is , it was on my mother in laws line. Shes almost 60 and hasnt sent 1 text message since we put them on our account 3 years ago.

Afford-Anything's picture

You've touched on a HUGE problem. The FTC recently announced that more than 20 million Americans are victimized by scams similar to this. In fact, they recently issued a warning, saying ordinary Americans should check their phone bills for these types of cramming charges and should protest these immediately. In the meantime, the FTC is cracking down harder on these types of grey charges, although -- as with any type of federal crackdown -- it may take awhile before the results take effect.

I don't want to post a link in a comment -- I realize that's impolite and is seen as spammy -- but I do genuinely think that this is a relevant link that readers might be interested in. (Feel free to delete it if this is inappropriate) -- https://www.billguard.com/blog/2013/02/what-are-cramming-charges/

Guest's picture
Guest

It happended to me through Bingoroo. I notice it on the 4th month. At&T reversed only for the 4th month. So I lost $30 before I lokked into this. This for the author. I called AT&T and added purchase blocker.

Guest's picture
Guest

I called US Cellular today about Bingaroo charges. I was told that they would not refund my money and they could not put a block on my account for these kinds of unauthorized charges. My experience with their service reps is they are poorly trained and incapable of providing helpful information.