By the Blouin News Technology staff

Can U.S. wireless users escape mobile cramming?

by in Personal Tech.

Source: Steven Damron/flickr

Source: Steven Damron/flickr

Wireless customers in the U.S. of Verizon and Sprint have until December 31 to claim their refunds for unauthorized charges on their bills; the two companies were found guilty of “mobile cramming” by the Federal Trade Commission earlier this year. In May, Verizon and Sprint agreed to pay a combined $158 million to settle investigations into whether they had billed customers millions of dollars in unauthorized third-party products and services, and this settlement highlights the deep-seated problems the U.S. wireless industry has, especially in terms of consumer rights.

The F.T.C. defines mobile cramming as “a modern version of a long-time scam in which consumers’ phone bills are used as a vehicle for unauthorized charges placed by third parties.” And each one of the top four major wireless providers in the U.S. has been found guilty of this practice at one point or another.

In 2014, AT&T agreed to pay $105 million to settle its mobile cramming cases, including $80 million in consumer refunds. Shortly thereafter, T-Mobile agreed to pay at least $90 million, including full consumer refunds to settle its mobile cramming cases with the F.T.C. And now Verizon and Sprint are paying up. It is clear that this illegal practice is rife throughout the U.S. wireless scene, and has affected tens of millions of American consumers.

These mobile cramming scandals serve to paint the U.S.’s wireless telecom scene in a rather negative light. While there’s no telling how many wireless providers in other countries are also guilty of mobile cramming, it says quite a bit about the mobile landscape in the U.S. if all four major providers have been conducting illegal activity that directly impacts the wallets of their customers. It reinforces the frustration of the American user to feel powerless to subscribe to an honest telco. Perhaps the perpetual drama among them, and the ongoing class action lawsuits could pave the way for smaller telcos to nab consumers. (Although it would take quite a lot of effort, time, and money to wrest customers away from a telco such as T-Mobile that has pulled out all the stops to drag customers away from its own top rivals.)

Still, companies as big as Google have been trying to shake up the wireless scene in the U.S. for some time now. Earlier this year, the company unveiled its Project Fi — a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) initiative that requires users to pay $20 per month plus $10 for every gigabyte of data they use. While the program initially was only available to users of Google’s Nexus 6 smartphones, last week, the company announced that users can order data-only SIM cards for select Android tablets and iPads equipped with cellular antennae. Project Fi has a long way to go, but it is indicative of other companies thinking outside the box in terms of what U.S. wireless customers want. FreedomPop is another such MVNO in the U.S. that has tried to target users with its unique data pricing structure and hardware.

Perhaps it will take a few more years of muddled billing, mobile cramming, and other violations for U.S. wireless users to genuinely consider defecting from the country’s wireless juggernauts.