Ringtones: How Viewers Got Stung

Sharyl Attkisson is an investigative correspondent for CBS News. Her latest Follow the Money segment examined how replying to a text message or even browsing a Web site can unleash a flury of phone-bill charges for unordered and unwanted services. It's called "cramming."

I communicated with many unhappy customers while working on tonight's story on ringtone fraud. Of course only a few people's stories can actually fit into a report on the Evening News.

But I thought it might be interesting for you to read about the experiences of a few other folks. Judging from how many people have said it's happened to them (it even happened to me and my friends and family) we may be just beginning to hear how widespread this type of alleged scam may be.

What are your rights? If you can't get satisfaction from your service provider on what you believe are bogus charges, report it online to the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC told CBS News it's glad we're doing the story and helping let people know that this type of fraud is out there. Read on for some of the stories people told me.

Well, I signed up with (name of service provider withheld) in June 2007 and only just now realized that I have been charged $9.99/mo for the same ringtone service through a company called (withheld). The thing is, I never responded to any of the text ads they sent, PERIOD. All I did was receive them, and read them. And then suddenly I am being billed! I never downloaded any free ringtones and didn't even realize I was signed up for anything like this. I have never responded to any ads, even those that say to text XXXXX for a "free joke of the day". Never. And this was because my wife and I just knew these kinds of things would be a scam! I just now sent an email to (company) demanding a refund (for three months' worth of charges so far), since I have seen other people saying online that they tried to get (service provider) to give the refund but they couldn't since it is a 3rd party vendor.

On November 4, 2007, my son, who is underage, saw an ad for a FREE download for ring tones. He followed the instructions for this FREE download only to discover that it was not FREE and he had been the victim of false advertising. He has since contacted several friends who have had the same experience. He had no authorization to change anything on our cell phone plan. He immediately contacted a representative from the company and cancelled the download. He asked 3 times if this particular download was cancelled and asked whether or not it would show up on our bill. He was told 3 times that the unFREE download was indeed cancelled and would never show up on a bill.

I received a bill from (name of service provider withheld) within a few weeks, and we were signed up for your FREE product at a cost of $9.99, and also, a charge of $19.98. I wrote to (withheld) and complained, and REFUSED TO PAY THE $19.98. The next month's bill also had the $19.98, + a late fee, plus again, we were still "signed up" for a service that we had never used and had supposedly cancelled within 5 minutes of downloading it!!!!!!!

After wasting my time and my gas to drive to a local (withheld) office to deal with this issue, I was told that I had to pay (withheld) and would need to receive a refund from (the ringtone company) for this abuse. At this point, I am owed $29.97 from the company. (1) the company is falsely advertising a free product which in reality is NOT free (2) My son was not authorized to add any sort of change to our policy (3) After realizing his mistake, my son was lied to by a representative of (the ringtone company) (4) I have never used this particular program

I manage a fairly large user base of Wireless devices. I get a handful of these very month and spend hours trying to track where they come from, how to get the credit, and how to stop it. There is NO WAY to stop users from subscribing.. Per (name of service provider withheld). (service provider) states that per FCC Regs, they can not block 3rd party content. My argument was this.. YOU (service provider) are not blocking it, I, the end user, am.

Our 12 year old daughter was taken advantage of but we got hit with $19.99 per month and (service provider) says we can't stop it! It will just continue forever. We tried filing a complaint with the FCC but (service provider) said this won't work either. Is (service provider) in on the scam? This will cost us almost $240 a year if we can't get it to stop.

I have just found this (bogus charge) on our (name of service provider withheld) cell phone bill. Yes, it is a great story for fraud or at the least shady business practice. I WISH you would go public and expose them!! I definitely plan to report them to BBB and FTC and any other state organization possible. It showed up on my daughter's bill. The catch, she showed me a text from this service on Oct 16th because she didn't know what it was. I went through the procedures on the 17th of trying to cancel it. Left a message for the company which has gone unanswered. Today I left another one and also e-mailed them. I do not expect to hear from them. I had not looked at the (service provider) bill until today. Apparently this started back in July, with no charge, and one charge in Aug and 5 charges in Sept!

My husband had visited a horsecity website and took the bait for a free ringtone. That's when the nightmare started. He began to sign up for the free ringtone by entering his cell phone number and starting the process. He said at some point he decided to try and back out of the process. He never downloaded any ringtones. Only a few minutes later, he was getting a text message on his cell phone. He immediately sent a stop quit reply message back to stop it. Well, what do you think? On our next (service provider) bill we had a $9.99 charge on it. Upon calling (serviced provider), they didn't seem to want to help us and told us we'd have to contact (ringtone company). Well, that's easier said than done. The first phone call to (ringtone company), my husband was on hold for at least 2 1/2 hours before being disconnected. The next day, he got through after being on hold 45 minutes. They said he would have to pay it. That's fraud. He shouldn't have to pay for something he never subscribed to and never got, including ever getting a "free ringtone"! We also e-mailed them. The e-mailed back indicating he'd have to pay the $9.99 because he had already entered his PIN number when he signed up, which is a total lie! He never got that far in the process to enter any PIN number. I don't even think we have a PIN number anyway. I mean, do the math. Can you imagine how much they're racking up scamming the tens of thousands of people at $9.99 at pop? I'm a court reporter in Georgia and would love to have this type of scam exposed so the public can protect themselves.

I'm on (service provider withheld) & I got NO satisfaction from them or (ringtone company). Both companies refused to issue a refund and (serviced provider) told me that they would disconnect my services if I didn't pay the (ringtone company) charges, even though they're not (service provider) charges. I had quite a few words with (service provider) this morning & threatened to change providers & they STILL won't budge. (service provider) did tell me that there was supposed to be a block available today so apparently they've been bombarded with complaints. I just can't believe that a company like (service provider) would associate themselves with these scam artists! The public needs to be aware of these crooks!

(Name of service provider withheld) was the first place I turned to when I saw the extra charge on my cell phone bill statement. The customer service representative I spoke to was very nice, but explained that this charge was from an outside source. The customer service rep. gave me the name and information for (company) who appears to be the parent company of (ringtone company). After contacting this company 3 times, I finally spoke to a "supervisor" who told me to email my request to stop service to (ringtone company). I sent a first email that was of course ignored. I then sent a follow up email which was responded to 2 weeks later with a message from "Support@bigtimecrush.com" alerting me that I have been unsubscribed from the text program. This month's bill did not show any extra charges, nor have I received an unwanted text messages since. I can only assume that I have been removed from their database and will not receive messages from this point forward. The money I was charged on my bill is probably something that I will never get back, but I am thankful, for now, that it has at least stopped.

I had recently subscribed for the "one free ring tone" on a military "secure" web site and immediately got the PIN number to enter which I did. I just went on their web site and followed the instructions on how to unsubscribe and it actually let me unsubscribe (or so it says) I saved all the info. It also sent me an alert saying that I had unsubscribed, so I'll bet I'll get charged for that as well.

We recently received our bill from (name of service provider withheld) and were surprised to find a charge of 9.99 from a company listed as (company). After doing an internet search on this telephone number we found it was from (ringtone company). I then contacted (service provider) and asked them to remove the charge since we never subscribed for any of their services. (service provider) said they could not.

We called (service provider) to urge them to block our phone from such messages. (service provider) could not stop one number, but instead put a complete block of all text messages. Unfortunately, when we received our bill there was a charge for these 11 messages and this premium text message. We called a second time, and the V(service provider) representative said we had to cancel the service on our own. I explained I did not even know what it was for. In fact, I deleted all the messages all at once so I never even opened a message on the phone. I hope you can get to the bottom of this and (service provider) can stop allowing such companies to charge people for things/services they did not even subscribe.

I just received 2 charges on my phone bill for this ringtone crap. 19.99 apiece.
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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.