WASHINGTON Federal and state regulators said that mobile telephone carriers Verizon Wireless and Sprint have agreed to settle allegations that they bilked consumers out of millions by allowing third parties to "cram" unauthorized charges onto their customers' bills.
The announcement, made Tuesday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Communications Commission, in conjunction with the attorneys general of several states, calls for the companies to refund $120 million in faulty charges directly to consumers and pay an additional $38 million in fines and penalties.
"Sprint and Verizon had flawed billing systems that allowed merchants to add unauthorized charges to wireless customer bills," said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. "Consumers bore the brunt of those charges and ended up paying millions of dollars while the companies reaped profits. Today's actions will require these companies to improve their billing practices going forward."
The proposed settlement will cover a complaint that CFPB brought against Sprint in December as well as a similar complaint brought against Verizon on Tuesday. The settlements must be approved by federal judges in New York and New Jersey before they are finalized.
The settlements combined with settlements between the Federal Trade Commission and AT&T in October and T-Mobile in December resolve "cramming" claims for 98.5% of the cellular telephone service in the U.S., according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. AT&T agreed to pay $80 million in consumer restitution and $25 million in penalties, while T-Mobile settled for $67.5 million in consumer restitution and $22.5 million in fines.
The complaints allege that between 2004 and 2013, the wireless carriers failed to appropriately oversee third-party vendors that handled payments for apps, games, books and other services that became increasingly available and lucrative as smartphones gained traction. That lack of oversight gave those vendors "nearly unfettered access to consumers' wireless accounts," according to the CFPB, allowing charges that range from one-time 99-cent fees to recurring $9.99 monthly fees. Verizon and Sprint, meanwhile, received a portion of those fees.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said that it was "both unfair and illegal to charge consumers for services they did not request, a practice that Sprint and Verizon engaged in over several years," and estimated that two million consumers in New York alone were affected by the practice.
Wheeler put it more bluntly: "Consumers were being charged for things they didn't buy, and now they have a chance to get their money back."
In addition to the penalties, Sprint and Verizon must clearly and conspicuously disclose third-party charges on their billing statements and must obtain permission from consumers to allow third parties to assess charges on their bills. The settlement also requires the carriers to develop an improved resolution process for disputed charges and enhance customer service employee training programs. Consumers can submit claims for refunds at specially created websites, located here for Verizon customers and here for Sprint customers.
The settlements mark the agency's first attempt to assert jurisdiction over mobile carriers, which the CFPB claimed because the Dodd-Frank Act gave it authority over mobile payments and payment processing. Some observers said that CFPB has overstepped its bounds, but those jurisdictional claims were apparently convincing enough to Sprint and Verizon that they were willing to settle the charges rather than test them in court. And with nearly the entire cellular market having settled "cramming" claims, the likelihood of any future challenge to the CFPB's jurisdiction on this issue is remote.
The settlements do suggest that the CFPB envisions mobile payments -any payment made with or via cellular technology part of its jurisdiction, but it also demonstrates that mobile payments are not the sole dominion of the agency. Cordray said during a press conference Tuesday that when the mobile companies use telephone bills as a means of payment for secondary products be they ringtones or apps or media content it "turns them into payment processors under the law," thus bringing them under the bureau's jurisdiction. But Cordray acknowledged the fact that the some companies settled with the FTC and others with the CFPB, demonstrating that both agencies have jurisdiction in this area.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said that complaints like the ones settled Tuesday will become increasingly common as mobile payments make up a larger portion of commerce.
"It's becoming more and more common, and it's going to be more common in the future, and that will present real challenges to consumers," Frosh said. "We've uncovered one kind of snare but the more we use our cellphones and our computers to pay our bills and conduct our financial transactions, the more vulnerable we become to those who seek to take advantage of us."