During a two-month period last spring, Andrea Silva received nearly $3,800 in bills for hundreds of international calls made on her son's cell phone from Mexico to places like Las Vegas, Miami, Moscow and Cuba.
The problem was that her son was on a fishing trip in Samoa. And his phone was sitting in Silva's bureau drawer, turned off.
Silva has since worked with Sprint to drop all the charges, but the phantom calls remain a mystery to Art Neill, an attorney for Utility Consumers' Action Network, a San Diego-based consumer-advocacy organization, who said he's come across several similar cases of phantom calls during the past couple years.
In some ways, he said, cases like Silva's fit the profile of international roaming fraud, where hackers will “clone” phones—reprogramming a phone with another phone's serial and phone number, obtained by monitoring radio wave transmissions—and leave victims with hefty bills for calls they never made.
“International phone fraud is a really strange animal,” Neill said. “You're putting yourself out there when you take your phone abroad.”
But in many ways, the local cases are different. Every two weeks, Silva would turn on her son's phone to check the voicemail, but, for the most part, it never left the drawer—let alone the country. And in the United States, cloning is much more complicated today and much less common than it was in the early days of the cellular phone, when service was analog. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) hasn't dealt with phone cloning for many years, said Elizabeth Podolinsky, a CPUC regulatory analyst.
Thankfully for Silva, California cell phone users can challenge mysterious charges. Under state law, phone companies can charge users only for services that “the subscriber has authorized” and must investigate complaints. Pending investigation, the subscriber is not required to pay the challenged charge.
And in fact, suspicious charges on cell phone bills are so common that consumer advocates have nicknames for them.
There are ETFs, the early-termination fees cell phone companies charge for closing a contract before it expires. There's “cramming,” for hidden charges that companies tack onto monthly bills. And in San Diego, people living near the border sometimes experience “border bleed”—roaming charges for calls made in the United States that were picked up by antennas in Mexico.
The situation might get better for cell-phone users burdened with crammed bills and exorbitant ETFs. At a town hall meeting at the Chula Vista Library's Civic Center Branch on Jan. 25, Mignon Clyburn, a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission, said she was building a record of complaints about shady phone contracts and mysterious charges to help guide FCC policy.
But clearing unauthorized charges may always be a hassle, just as it was for Silva. It took two months of wrangling with customer service before Sprint dropped the charges on her son's phone.
“They were really nasty about a lot of it,” she said. “And they always tried to make it something that we had caused to occur. Which it wasn't. The phone was turned off. It was in that dresser drawer.”