AT&T gets $105 million wake-up call about mobile cramming

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We’re not saying it’s the most important phone message since “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” But the FTC hopes a $105 million settlement with AT&T Mobility stemming from unauthorized charges on consumers’ mobile phone bills will motivate industry members to listen up.

The AT&T case is the latest salvo in the battle against mobile cramming. It’s part of a united front forged by the FTC, the FCC, and a coalition of 51 state Attorneys General.

According to the FTC’s complaint, companies signed consumers up without their express consent for text message services offering trivia, ringtones, flirting tips, celebrity gossip, and the like. Industry insiders refer to them as Premium SMS charges, but thousands of consumers called the monthly $9.99 fees unapproved, unauthorized, and flat-out annoying. AT&T wasn’t the one serving up the flirting advice, but it billed consumers for the services and pocketed a cool 35-40% of the take.

What’s more, the FTC complaint alleges that AT&T took steps to keep consumers in the dark about what was going on, making it tough for them to challenge the unauthorized charges. The company’s bills clearly listed the bottom-line total supposedly owed each month, but consumers were hard-pressed to locate and identify the unapproved fees. For example, hard copies of bills hid them in a category called “AT&T Monthly Subscriptions,” despite the fact that the charges were placed by third-party content providers.

Even if consumers were able to decipher their bills, the FTC says AT&T looked the other way as complaints mounted. In 2011 alone, the company got over 1.3 million calls to its customer service department complaining about third-party subscription charges. And it wasn’t just consumers clamoring for the company to cut out the cramming. The lawsuit cites an in-house email in which an employee stated that “Cramming/Spamming has increased to a new level that cannot be tolerated from an AT&T or industry perspective.” But tolerate it AT&T did, even as industry auditor alerts, law enforcement agencies, and others joined consumers in urging the company to rethink the role it was playing in the unauthorized – and illegal – charges.

The FTC says AT&T compounded the harm to consumers by setting up roadblocks to refunds. When people complained, AT&T told some of them there was nothing it could do. In other cases, AT&T put the onus on consumers, telling them to take it up with the third party sending the unwanted content. But good luck with that, given that in many instances, AT&T failed to give people accurate information on how to reach them. Others were offered a take-it-or-leave it token refund of two months of charges even though AT&T had billed them for a year or more.

All the while, AT&T continued to pocket its hefty percentage even from content providers that racked up astronomically high complaint and refund numbers. One telling comparison, according to the FTC: how AT&T rebuffed consumers who tried to get refunds vs. how the company bent over backwards to maintain lucrative business relationships with crammers through an ineffective “three strikes” policy.

The complaint alleges that AT&T’s billing practices were deceptive and unfair. The settlement requires AT&T to ensure from here on in that consumers give their consent before being billed for third-party charges. When consumers contact AT&T about unauthorized third-party charges, the company will have to provide a refund unless it can show the consumer consented to the charge in the first place. What about telling people to hunt down the third-party subscription services on their own to get a refund? That practice has to stop. AT&T also has agreed to continue to offer consumers the option to block all third-party charges.

Of the $105 million total financial settlement, $80 million will go to the FTC to use for consumer refunds, $20 million will be paid in penalties and fees to the state AGs, and $5 million will go in penalties to the FCC. For current customers billed for unauthorized third-party charges, AT&T must notify them of the settlement and refund program by text, email, paper bill insert, and notification on an online bill. Former customers may be contacted by the FTC’s refund administrator. Consumers can visit the FTC's refund page for more information.

What’s the message for other marketers?

First, consumers shouldn’t need Sudoku-like skills to figure out their bills. It’s a basic principle of customer service – oh, yeah, and it’s the law – that a business needs to explain what consumers owe in a truthful fashion. A related tenet we’ve repeated so often we should design a macro by now: It’s illegal to bill people without their express consent.

Second, the FTC looks carefully at how companies respond when consumers come forward with a legitimate beef. People shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to vindicate their rights. If you haven’t taken a look at your procedures recently, maybe now is the time.



Much too much for my bill.

What years did this settlement cover?
Hi, Robin. Current and former AT&T customers who had to pay for unauthorized third-party charges after January 1, 2009, can apply for refunds at

The settlement says 'since January 1, 2009'

Good! I'm so tired of those mystery charges on my phone bill every month. They've told me there is nothing they can do about them. Thank you FTC!!!
what can I do? I've been with them for years and they try something new every month. And it's my business phone. So changing it would not be in my best interest.

How do you get your hands on the money?

I need to file a grievance also. My AT&T bills have been a true 'GRIEVANCE'. Good for you FTC. THERE ARE MANY OTHER INSTITUTIONS THAT NEED TO BE CLEANED UP AS WELL!
Phones and monies on books of inmates in prison systems. Banking systems with exorbitant fees for various bogus late transactional fees. Pawn shops usary not to mention dishonest, borderline thievery practices. Phone systems that make consumer pay millions a month for their repetitious voice prompts that should have been stopped a billion dollars ago. Data being eaten up with said voice prompt messaging. Attorneys unethical practice of using retainer fees on conferring with one another while representing opposing counsel. Fraud brought to the attention of Trustees in Bankruptcy Courts to fund penal infliction to informant. These are but a few
wrongs that must be addressed. I do hope you are listening. I have many others. I pray you can right the wrongs done to the masses. Thank you.

I feel strongly that I have been overcharged on aprox. Fifty percent during this time frame. Thanks for trying to help us with this concern.

Good work, Uncle Sam! God bless America!
This post is fantastic. Keep up the good work, Some of the points are helpful to us got information.
At&T should not charge people for phones that have gone bad just because they have a stupid contract they should be more flexible!!! Just not fair to the elderly people that is on a fixed income!!

Thanks for the remark on elderly people our phone bill use to be approx $119.00 and we had 3 phones @ 2 of them $9.99 and mine was approx $ 38.00 + 30 for this and $30 for this and that but that was for Data unlimited, and Message unlimited now they are charging me $184.71 and we are both totally disabled and on a fix income ? Now it's just me and 1 other Phone ?

AT&T is finally getting what they deserve. We've been screwed day in and day out by them for several years now. We've had to call every month to get the false charges dropped. The customer service line couldn't care less about their customers; no one on the customer service team is even in America! They're all Indians who speak English as a second language like they picked up a basic English book, constantly provide fake names, are so rude that they frequently hang up on us. I'm sick and tired of dealing with AT&T and I hope this settlement teaches them a lesson that they'll never forget!
How can we obtain phone bills that far back? I try to go online and as far as I got was 2013. I am sure I was billed for unauthorized charges at one point. My bills have always been up and down, never consistant.

Maria P, if you visit, the FTC has a toll-free number you can call for more information.

AT&T also charge me more than i expected!!!
What about this new hidden charges on their NEXT plans? Lets go after them for thay too!! Crooks!
[ ] There are no hidden charges with next. You have to sign an installment agreement to do next. You sign it. And have things explained to you before you sign. And if you're on the mobile share 10gb or higher, you even get $25 off per month when you upgrade this way. Which makes it cheaper than a two year contract. Quit being a [ ] 5 year old. This is what's wrong with this country. Go to another carrier, have fun. It's the same way everywhere...

Funny how you call him/her a 5 year old. Some 5 year olds must have done lots of clicking to help corporate America continue to fool us dummies. Generally speaking, America can't or just chooses not to read or see. Guess whose fault that would be? Government, or corporations in layman's terms. Did you know when you were born, you became a corporation? So essentially it's your fault, or you're to blame. I really don't care, because. I live in Texas, so whatever happens with this will likely not be honored. This state is its own corporation and doesn't listen to rules. Ask any official. You get, "no comment" told to you. Foolish people allow the fleecing of America by corporations. Have a nice day. I hope you have an oil pipeline under your house! Lol.

I live in Texas also, and was getting the shaft from AT&T. I never paid for the charges, but it took me 3 months to get it straightend out. Crooks is right. Oh, and by the way, l do have a pipeline under my house. It's called the Eagle Ford Shale. I live in Yorktown Tx, and retain 100% of the mineral rights on my land. So sorry you have nothing.

It;s funny how the writer of this article(sic)does not mention that in order for people to purchase these 3rd party subscriptions they have to click, tap on I Agree tab not once..not twice but three times! Hmmm another example of people not taking owbership of their own actions? Oh well let's blame it on the big bad corporate America; it gets us good press coverage.

Not true. ATT has a long history of actions such as making arbitrary minor changes to my account; I then see a "Change Fee" and have to go through the phone tree to be told "you requested a change in service Sir"....BS

It is funny how the big bad Corporate people don't look at who they are allowing to put charges on a bill when they aren't the authorized person on that bill. They started billing me extra for a subscription that I didn't authorize. They said my daughter agreed by pushing a button while surfing the web. She most likely didn't understand what she was doing as a lot of pop ups won't let you out of a window till you push the button they want you to push. They finally listened and reimbursed me but a scam is a scam and you have the wrong way of thinking if you think it is OK to hurt people. So one day when you stand before God I hope you change your way of thinking and get your heart right as it is not OK to take advantage of anyone. So lets hope that the shoe in never on the other foot or if God allows it to happen to you then maybe you would understand better how much hurt it causes a person when they get taken advantage of. That little extra money could be the food taken out of their child's mouth or needed for a medical bill. Start looking at who you are as a person and stop judging others as there is only one God and you are not him! Will corporate be there for you one day to support you if something like this happens to you or will you be treated just like everyone else? Will you be told Oh well deal with it? In the end we will all stand alone and answer for all we have or have not done. God won't be looking at who you hang out with as they will each be judged individually as you to will be. I always figured if anything is hidden, not to be known exactly what it is then it must not be good. So any of those hidden fees are meant to take advantage of good people which means the ones hiding it from these good people know they are doing wrong in the first place. They are no different than thieves who are locked up behind bars. You even said it when you said Big Bad Corporate America.....BAD.

You are missing the point. I would agree that when people were signing up for these services they should have used the axiom, "a deal too good to be true". The problem is how AT&T reacted when they realized, what their own internal emails surmised, their customers were on the losing end of this and for a world class organization it reflected poorly on them. Instead of looking after their customers, they looked they other way while pocketing huge profits off of this and then actively working against their customers in helping them. That is reprehensible behavior and too often has become the common practice in corporate America.

i been with AT&T for a long time and was wondering what the extra fees were for, I even asked the sells rep and they did not know a answer. Strange..
In response to "Username," who said: "It;s funny how the writer of this article(sic)does not mention that in order for people to purchase these 3rd party subscriptions they have to click, tap on I Agree tab not once..not twice but three times!" You don't know what you are talking about. I never consented to anything when I was enrolled in a $9.99 monthly service. There may be some that ask for consent, as they should, but those are clearly not the ones this post is talking about. I called ATT and demanded a refund, and they gave it to me.

You prolly signed up at wallmart or a third party dealer because it is on every bill and every prephone contract of everything you declined or agreed to when purchasing the phone and accepting to the terms of the Cell plan... When you go online to check your monly statement it will have a section specific to subscriptions and if you see you are subscribided to something that you were not aware of then you can simply call Att and they will cancel the subscription as they will offer a free sevice that aloows you to block any and all third party subscriptions. This too should have been explained to you when you "bought" your device I know for a fact it is also on the contract you sign and did not read.

I started receiving text messages from random people not in my contacts. The messages would be in spanish and it started about March or April of this year. I thought it was strange but never took action. What should I do? I have also switched mobile carriers.
Hi, For over 16 years, I haVe been with AT&T with a glitch here and there, until this May 15, 2014 when I was sold a Bundle package(wireless,u-verse and digital) for $270.00 per month guaranteed never to go over that amount. It has been a NIGHTMARE ever since with billing hundreds of dollars over per month. Any advice on this scam that AT&T IS TRYING TO GET AWAY WITH. THANKS AND DESPERATE.

The worst thing U can do with AT&T is buy an overseas plan. That will ALWAYS end up costing a minimum of triple the price you signed up for no matter the extra usage you agreed in advance to pay. It's disillusioning
To realize one of the oldest corporations & a publicly regulated utility can be so grossly fraudulent & stay in business. Thank the FTC for investigating this & seeking customer redress. However, nothing it seems will keep AT&T honest. Could part of the penalty be 10 years of Federal oversight before they can run their next scam?

Had been with AT&T since 1998, when the employees acted in a professional manner & could speak & understand english! The past few yrs, I've felt like an unpaid employee, attempting to resolve one error after another, along with trouble-shooting, correcting poorly written documentation from previous phone conversations regarding other billing errors, etc. But the largest scam was an unauthorized billing to my acct (via month payments for 22 months!) Of a cell purchase for $440. We have always done upgrades, never a purchase over the past 16 yrs.AT&T turned off our service (3 cells) when contesting charges, then added several start up fees to bills. NO help from the Corporate office either, just more inexperienced clerks! The worst part was cancelling our 16 year acct, when my former husband passed away, stating acct name had to be changed to my name, fine I thought, but then I was told my rates would be higher than $270/mo since my credit score is low! I have an illness causing me not to work, so I requested unlocking of cells to switch carriers, but had to pay their billing error anyway, which I did, hoping to find attorney when feeling better, to be reimbursed. deceased former husband & I have received letters & calls from collections for another one of their billing errors!! Hoping AT&T losses all their customers.
This article could not be more on point. As we speak I have been put "on hold" for over two hours by a spiteful, lazy and rude woman who said there is nothing she can do! Like really? How is that possible, even with all the proof I have. They literally have not changed AT ALL since this lawsuit. They think they can get away with everything and something NEEDS to be done to actually wake them up. I am appalled and embarassed that this is an American company. These people are disgusting! MORE ACTION NEEDS TO BE TAKEN
AT&T is a broken company - more so now than when it was a monopoly. They are very inneficient and their customer service skills are horific! I have spent countless hours on the phone for them to resolve my wireless issues only to be given the run-around from one department to the next ended up in a dead loop multiple times. I finally deicided to cancel my account and sent all the phones back to them. As if this was not enough to make them take a look internally, they keep billing me for services they have not provided to me or anyone in my household. Time for another break-up?
I was charged a couple month ago over $300.00 for activation of ipad air
"It;s funny how the writer of this article(sic)does not mention that in order for people to purchase these 3rd party subscriptions they have to click, tap on I Agree tab not once..not twice but three times! Hmmm another example of people not taking owbership of their own actions? Oh well let's blame it on the big bad corporate America; it gets us good press coverage." I never clicked or tapped anything - had never even HEARD of the thing they were charging me for. Normally I don't even look at the cell bill as it comes in my husband's name and is paid automatically. But luckily I noticed when I got a text about the amount, and it seemed high. Found out I'd been charged for a 3rd party service for 2 months. I had no trouble getting AT&T to take the charges off, but it enraged me that they could (and did) start charging me for that without my knowledge and consent.
You controdict yourself in your own post?????
Took me a bit too. They were quoting a previous post from a person obviously disgruntled because they WERE actually dumb enough to "click, not once, not twice, but 3 times!" and therefore not eligible for the refund and forced to "take ownership" of his own actions.

That's not true, the text would grant you an account with their services and require you to stop the services when you no longer want them, assuming first that you wanted it, and forcing you to stop it. And if you didn't look for it on the bill you were charged until you found it . You're being an apologist for swindlers.

I agree with the NEXT issue! My family and I have been with AT&T Since they were CINGULAR wireless! I have never had problems with them, and love the upgrades. It used to be a new upgrade every year, then later it turned to two years. That was still fine with me since this was around the time iPhone's came out. A new iPhone every 2 years for 0.99 $ was great, especially since you could keep your old phone. I went in the store a few weeks ago only to find out they NO LONGER UPGRADE! It's a different program and your options only charge more to your bill every month. To say I am PISSED is an understatement! Even an associate in the store told me my best bet was to buy a new iphone at a pawn shop or "get one from a friend." Whatever that might mean... Regardless, something needs to be done! As loyal customers, it is not right to be this way. I wouldn't sign a contract with them now with how things are. AT&T PLEASE MAKE SOME CHANGES! Or your losing customers you've had over 15 years.
They do still have the 2 year upgrade. You dont have to do the next. They tried to sell me the same bull crap lie. I just recently purchased 3 iphone 6s at walmart through att for 179$ each with the 2 year upgrade abd contract. They can still do it. Even the walmart sales lady said it. They just dont want you to know.
They dont tell you about the 2yr upgrades becaus ethey have a quota to hit for the NEXT program, so they don't offer regular upgrades. Upgrades are such a low portion of their commission check, so they don't care if you upgrade or not.

First, whether Next is better deal than a contract is dependent on how many lines and the amount of data you use. I know both pricing tiers inside and out as I was a trainer for the stores when Next was introduced. It's like leasing vs. buying a car. How often do you want a new one and how much will you use it.
And at Wal-Mart I promise the staff gets no commission. So learning all the confusing options and explaining them accurately is a slim possibility. But I read every detail on the contract and the charges are far in excess and the fees and frequency of account suspensions is based on their determination of your risk relying on their whims. Therefore I refused to go away after being told my $600 in extra costs were from unpaid late fees from the bill period prior for which I had not even been a customer yet. I paid to restore my service and within days they arbitrarily disconnected me again. Which the contract fine print permits. Without having to explain, still charging you during the suspended time and charging you $40 to restore service, Any time they want without cause or warning or explanation. I am filing formal complaint with both the state and the feds. Because we the people have no legal power to seek justice. That's in the fine print too. If that makes me five years old then those posters who shame someone for wanting to be treated fairly can enjoy being bullied. I am standing up to them. 8-P

I, too, am frustrated with this. Apparently they no longer consider a 2 year contract to be worth selling you the phone at discount price; but the 2 year program will actually cost you more. They have initiated this so that you will get upgrades every 12-18 months. They try to make it appealing, but you end up paying full price and still giving the old phone back (with Next). I checked around, seems other companies now have similar policies. No matter how you look at it, you will pay full price...

No, this is incorrect. The "old" two year contract is no longer available. Yes, you can do a two year contract, but it is a "New" type, and you are penalized for it. If you do the NEXT installment payments, (or leasing as I call it,) or if you bring your own phone that you purchased second-hand, or if your previous contract is over and you DON'T upgrade but keep your old phone (whose OS quickly becomes unsupported,) then you only pay $15/per month, per each phone, for DATA charges. If you do their "NEW" two year contract upgrade, you are penalized with a $25 increase to Data. Each phone like this pays $40/month for Data access. They "spin" it to sound like the normal Data charge is $40 and you get a $25 discount if you use their NEXT plan or purchase the phone up front. A play on words because every other option is $15/mo data charge and only the two year contract is $40/mo. It's how they now re-coup the cost of giving you the 99¢ or $49, or $99 phone up front for your committment of two years. You will pay $25 x 24 months ($600) more for that phone. It's no longer free or cheap for your committment. Whether you do the NEXT plan or the two year contract, either way there is an extra $25/mo (extra "contract" data rate) or $27-$35/mo (NEXT installment payment) for the next 18-24 bills! 25 x 24 months just happens to equal exactly what the full price iPhone costs at an Apple Store - the CURRENT newest model. Now if you get an older upgrade, a 4S or a 5s/c, you end up OVER-paying for that phone.

ATT WILL NEVER MAKE ONE DOLLAR OFF OF ME AGAIN FOR A PHONE AND I will never do their NEXT plan. It's just leasing a phone and THAT is stupid. To lease a phone for $30/mo every month so that you always have the latest model. I have 5 iPhones in our family. They all came up for renewal/upgrades and they tried to get us all on the NEXT by lying to me about how it works. They told me our monthly bill would only be $191 with Mobile Share 10GB selection. I refused because I saw it as a leasing "set up." I wanted to do the two-year contract - I'm glad I hesitated, because the first bill would have been $325+ since using the contracts would have increased our data charges by an extra $125/mo every month tsince we had 5 phones. So far, I have replaced two of them with two I purchased "carefully, responsibly and wisely" from eBay for 1/4 to 1/2 the price of new. They were used, practically brand new and are beautiful. The other three are each waiting for me to purchase second-hand and replace, which will happen this year. My phone bill is never higher than $180 for sharing 10GB and unlimited texting because I chose to use "Bring Your Own." It's the ONLY option today with any of the big name mobile companies to beat them at their own game and keep your money. I'm willing to pay $185 up front now for a used-like-new phone than have a hard to afford cell phone bill every single month while I slowly pay AT&T $600 for the phone. THAT should become the new second definition in Webster's dictionary for the word "Stupid."

Im a bit confused... Att spells out what the Next program is quite clearly you have 12mths., of the same payment you would if you were on a 2yr contract but you are buying the phone interest free over 12 months no activation fee of 36.00, and there is not a $200.00 up front fee, then after 12 months if you choose you can trade it in and get a new phone if you like(similar to a leased car) or you can do 18 months paying the full amount of the phone, keep your phone and still upgrade... The difference on my bill was $15.00 less per phone. In addition the plan went down as well. The bill was simple to understand.
This settlement has nothing to do with this. It has to do with folks paying for "third party" fees to your bill. Not Att's Next program. The third party Fees are charges that you may or may have not received. For example ringtones or GPS. I do not work for Att but i am one of the few that truly looks at their bill every month and as a result of doing so I would find these fees for ringtone and song subscriptions that my kids joined. These Third Party companies were joined by mistake in order to get a song or ringtone and after the trial period if you did not cancel your subscription the fee for the Third Party would charge you.. I as millions of other customers noticed this and did something about it. The fees were not hidden but hard to find and unless you looke at your bill you would not have noticed it off hand.
The Next program is a simpler way to truly own your phone and be apart of a phone/data/messaging plan. For example 140.00 for unlimited text/talk and up to 10 GB Data and 10.00 per phone and 32.00 for a no interest monthly payment towards a phone or tablet of your choice. No activation fee or $200.00 upfront fee.
In the big scheme of things it used to be $130.00 for unlimited Talk/Text then 10.00 per phone and 30.00 per phone for data access in addition to the $200.00 then a 36.00 activation fee per phone or what ever it was when you received your phone and you had a 2yr stuck with that phone contract. I am sorry but if you add up $200.00(most new iPhone and smart phones) + $36.00 + $30.00 + $10.00 per phone and then the plan fee for 2yrs. You end up paying more. For example on my bill it went down 15.00 per phone no activation fee no upfront fee no activation fee and i could trade in my phone after 1year to the newest and greatest or continue to pay for the phone and after two month I owned the phone. The trade in on my iPhone 5s was $300.00 at an Att store when I upgraded to the new iPhone 6. Nothing down no activation fee and a $32.00 per month fee plus $10.00 per month and a all inclusive family plan of $120.00 for unlimited text, talk and 6Gb data. The end result in savings per year was well over $300.00 per phone. We started the Next program when it was conceived and the savings was shocking. So shocking I called Att and asked to be sure it was right. Of course it was and because my kids like the iPhone 5s, that are paid off, it only costs $10.00 per phone on my plan. I will have my iPhone 6's paid off this month due to the trade in on my two other iPhone 5s's of $600.00 in total and I applied that to paying off the iPhone 6's my bill will go down by $70.00. The plan plus $10.00 per phone on my plan. $120.00 plan + $60.00 for 6 phones and taxes and government fees. The other great thing about Att is they no lomger store any information regarding texts, talk, or data as do the other providers do. It is called Super cookies that are embeded in all phones to collect this information and Att no longer does this. If you have an Apple device well you even more secure. Because Apple dise not store any of your information unless you tell them too. PLEASE UNDERSTAND this settlement has nothing to do with the new Next, Edge contracts it is regarding "Third Party" fees only. Like ringtone companies, GPS, Road side assistance, insurance, music subscriptions, TV subscriptions, etc...

I've had this account since 1995 and still have my original phone #. But I have had up to 3 phones on my account in years past. I cant remember the mobile #s from that long ago.Is there any way to access contract archives from 2009? The FTC form says I need to list all #s associated with my account. After all these years of AT&T overcharging me...I want to make sure I get all I can from them!!!!
I agree. My teen went to sleep on international cell phone calls and racked up chRges of $10000 that at and t did not forgive.
Similarly deceptive is their relationship with third party suppliers for Uverse internet service. We tried it, couldn't get anywhere close to the speeds advertised even after spending two hours on the phone with customer service, so we asked to return it and cancel, all within 48 hours of receiving the kit in the mail. They told us to simply use the return shipping label that was supposed to be included in the box. But there was no return label, and it took nine (9!!!!!) months to get a label and resolve the issue. During that time, they continued billing us, sent our account to a collections agency which then harassed us for months and continually put us off to alternate departments because no one would take responsibility for resolving the issue. This lack of transparency about who is providing the actual service and the inability to quickly and easy cancel an unused service is unacceptable. It was a nightmare. I have been an AT&T cell customer for more than a decade wth few issues, but anything other than that I won't ever use based on my Uverse experience.


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