Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Oct 13 2006, 09:00PM

I've recently seen a resurgence of an illegal practice called "cramming." No, I'm not talking about the kind of "cramming" college students do before finals

I've recently seen a resurgence of an illegal practice called "cramming." No, I'm not talking about the kind of "cramming" college students do before finals. (If THAT were illegal, I never would have graduated!) Cramming is where companies cram your phone bill with all sorts of specialty services that you never ordered or used. The crammers are real scammers, with all sorts of creative tactics.Some companies get people to call an 800 number to test out a "free" service like a dating line or a psychic connection. When you call, the company captures your phone number and then bills you for monthly services or subscriptions. Or maybe you receive a sweepstakes promotion in the mail that tells you to call an 800 number to claim your prize. When you call, you're asked to give your phone number to verify your entry in the contest. Once again, they've got your number.

Local phone companies provide billing for all sorts of other businesses. In addition to dating lines, psychic services and adult entertainment, unscrupulous companies may try to cram fancy voicemail services, personal 800 numbers or text messaging options onto your bill.

Florida's attorney general recently filed a lawsuit against a company that was billing tens of thousands of consumers up to $15 a month for an online shopping service they never signed up for. Some of the victims didn't even have computers! What's interesting about the Florida case, is that it also seeks to hold local phone companies responsible for passing on the phony charges on customers' bills. Florida wants them to have to cover the costs! Stay tuned. Could get interesting.

1. If you like the local and long distance companies you're with and the extras you currently have, call and ask that your account be "locked" so that your signature is required for any changes in service.
2. If you are crammed, immediately contact the company listed on your bill. Ironically, often there is an 800 number to call.
3. Also contact the company in charge of your phone bills (usually your local phone company) and ask that your account be switched back to the way it was. Your account should be set straight within 24 hours.
4. Carefully read the fine print before entering contests. Avoid those that require your signature, a sign that you're being asked to agree to something.
5. Use caution when dialing unfamiliar 800 numbers. Be extra careful if you're asked to enter codes or answer "yes" to prompts.
6. Check your phone bill every month for unfamiliar companies and mysterious charges. Pay attention to even small charges. Some companies bill you a minuscule amount every month that adds up over time. It's often listed under "miscellaneous charges and credits." Look for catch words like "enhanced services," "minimum use fee," "activation," and "member fee."

The Federal Communications Commission regulates phone companies. For help closer to home, try your public service commission or public utilities commission. Your state attorney general should also be able to help.