Can I put you on hold?" The caller's question seems innocent enough. But if you answer "yes," an unscrupulous business might determine you've given permission to switch your long-distance phone service to On Hold, its company.

Welcome to the world of slamming. After divestiture of AT&T; Corp. in 1984, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave consumers the right to choose any long-distance carrier they wanted. Unfortunately, deregulation opened the door to deceptive marketing schemes. The result is that many carriers have found ways to steal payments from legitimate companies.

By the late 1980s, slamming became widespread as competition between the big three--AT&T;, MCI, and Sprint--intensified. Now, hundreds of long-distance providers are scrambling for the same thing--your long-distance home, business, and cellular phone service.

Of course not all long-distance carriers are unethical. But competition has become so intense that some marketers will do or say anything to get you to switch to their company, even without your authorization.

So how do you know if you've been slammed? You may not know--unless you examine your phone bill on a monthly basis or your bill seems higher than usual.

At first glance you might not recognize the switch on your bill. For instance, if you've been an AT&T; customer, its name still may appear on the bill, as it may be handling another service such as an 800 number account. But if you spot a new primary long-distance carrier, you've probably been switched.

Tougher antislamming laws still are making their way through Congress, but the basic detective work is up to you. Here's one fairly new development: If your local phone company also collects the bill for your long-distance provider, many states now require the long-distance provider's name be printed on the bill's first page. Here's another test to determine what carrier you have: For long-distance calls dial 700-555-4141. For local calls, dial your area code then 700-4141.
      Many carriers
      have found ways to
      steal payments from
      legitimate companies.

If you didn't read
the fine print when
you entered a contest,
you may have been
tricked into switching
your phone account.

Tricks of the trade
After you get over the shock of discovering you've been switched without your consent, you'll probably wonder how it happened. Remember that old adage about reading the fine print before signing your name? This is sound advice when it comes to phone slamming. One example: If you didn't read the fine print when you entered a contest, you may have been tricked into switching your phone account.

Other marketing ploys include sweepstakes forms, bogus checks, and solicitations that appear to come from charitable causes. If you endorse these checks or complete the forms and send them back, you unwittingly may have changed phone companies.

According to Randall Hoth, president and chief executive officer of the Better Business Bureau of Wisconsin, "Direct mail by credit card companies is another area to watch. Promotional mailings for credit card protection are frequently sent out by credit card companies. This is a legitimate marketing technique. But if the company has a subsidiary with a telecommunications license, it may be selling long-distance service as well as credit card protection. Read the fine print before signing the form."

Another tactic is phone solicitation. Be careful if a company calls offering a certain amount of free long-distance service or other bonuses for switching your phone company. Even if you decline, they are clever about documenting your "yes." They'll ask if you are the name they called, and if you say "yes," that yes may be recorded, then used as verification that you authorized the switch.

Not sure whom you are talking to? If you ask too many questions, slammers often hang up. But legitimate companies answer questions and are willing to send requested information in the mail.

Some scams induce you to call 800, 888, or 900 numbers so the company can obtain your correct name and phone number, then switch your phone service. If you receive a card saying you've won a prize, but you need to call an 800 number to claim it, be wary. Be especially careful if you're asked to "enter activation code numbers" or answer "yes" to questions that may result in unwanted telephone services.

Cramming unwanted services
on your bill

Cramming, like slamming, occurs without the consent of phone customers. These are optional services you haven't ordered. Review your phone bill to see if you're being charged for unwanted services such as voice mail, paging services, or 800 numbers.

If you're a renter, a new charge may be crammed onto your phone bill for maintenance of inside wire services--a charge that, if added legitimately, normally would be the responsibility of the building's owner.
      Review your phone bill
      to see if you're
      being charged for
      unwanted services
      such as voice mail,
      paging services, or
      800 numbers.

How to avoid being slammed or crammed

  • Never sign anything unless you've read it carefully.
  • Never give out personal information such as your phone number or your present carrier unless you know who will have access to this information and how it is used.
  • If you get a letter verifying you switched services, notify the sender in writing that you didn't authorize the switch.
  • Be suspicious of any phone company solicitor unwilling to send written information.
  • Consider getting caller ID. However, Hoth points out, "Caller ID was helpful for identifying unwanted calls before clever phone solicitors began using blocking techniques (numbers are replaced with stars on the screen) so you can't track their name and number. Still, you don't have to accept blocked calls."
  • Every month, scrutinize your phone bill for unfamiliar charges and unauthorized carriers.

What to do if you're slammed
or crammed

Be patient when undoing the process--it often takes time.

First, call your local phone company and tell representatives you did not order the new long-distance service.

Second, tell them to delete the "change charges" (cost of switching companies).

Third, call the company that slammed you. Tell its representative you want your calls credited to the amount you agreed to pay your preferred company. If the slammer won't do this, file a complaint with the FCC.

Fourth and finally, call the long-distance company you were switched from and tell representatives you were switched without your authority. You should not be charged to be reconnected with your former service.

Now that you've gone through all this, what about the future? When you're talking with customer service employees at your preferred long-distance and local phone companies, tell them you want a "P.I.C. (primary interchange carrier) freeze" on your account. This means you've picked that particular carrier and your account is it can't be switched without your authorization.

Surprisingly, many consumers aren't aware of this procedure. Hoth points out, "P.I.C.s are underutilized opportunities for consumers to control their phone charges."

Fraudulent long-distance carriers survive mainly because many consumers aren't aware of their practices. But these carriers also count on you to do nothing once you find out you've been slammed or crammed. They know that resolving phone disputes can be an aggravating process.

But slamming and cramming are crimes. Report these illegal practices to your state consumer protection office, the Better Business Bureau, your local phone company, and to the National Fraud Information Center (800-876-7060).

To file a complaint with the FCC, send an explanation of your experience to:
Federal Communications Commission
Common Carrier Bureau
Enforcement Division
Informal Complaints and
Public Inquiries Branch
Mail Stop Code 1600A2
Washington, DC 20554


      Slamming and cramming
      are crimes. Report
      these illegal practices
      to the proper authorities.

©1998 Credit Union National Association, Inc.