Verizon is the latest telephone company to sign an anti-cramming settlement with the state of Florida.

The company agreed to develop an early warning system designed to identify third-party companies that may attempt to place unauthorized charges on consumers phone bills.

Embarq, once part of Sprint, signed a similar agreement with Florida last month and AT&T; agreed to similar terms earlier. Verizon has more than 40 million access lines inside the coverage region affected by the agreement.

The practice known as cramming occurs when unauthorized charges are added to phone service bills without the consumers knowledge or consent.

Unfortunately, victims of cramming often dont realize they are being improperly billed until they have been paying the charges for a significant length of time, said Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum. Todays agreement is the third reached with major telephone companies serving our state, offering much needed protection to Floridas consumers.

As part of the agreement, Verizon will require merchants and billing and collection clearinghouses to forward all consumer complaints referencing cramming to the phone company.

If at least 220 complaints within the 28-state Verizon region reference the same company over a month-long period -- an average of eight complaints per state -- Verizon will take action against the company to protect telephone consumers.

These actions may include the requirement that the company accused of cramming send out written notices to all new Florida subscribers notifying them of the following:

• their service subscription;
• the date the charges will begin to appear on their Verizon bill;
• the amount of the charges, and
• how the consumer may cancel the service subscription.

If cramming continues, Verizon may cease doing business with the merchant.

The agreement follows similar settlements with Embarq and AT&T; and a nationwide settlement with Email Discount Network (EDN). The company had allegedly failed to clearly disclose that offers for Internet savings were not free and that customers who submitted personal information to the company would be charged unless they contacted EDN to cancel the charges.

More than 250,000 consumers nationwide were charged a monthly fee for the coupons. EDN agreed to make restitution to every consumer who was adversely affected by the companys business practices and who submits a claims form, with restitution expected to exceed $1 million.

The case involving Verizon was initiated last September when the Attorney General's Office initially sued EDN for cramming.

In conjunction with the lawsuit, the Attorney Generals Office and the Office of Public Counsel filed a joint petition before the Florida Public Service Commission against Verizon, Embarq and BellSouth seeking to protect Florida consumers from the deceptive practices.

The latest agreement is the final step in resolving the issue of how telephone companies with Florida customers will address cramming and what steps will be taken to proactively protect telephone consumers from the illegal practice, which occurs when unauthorized charges from third parties appear on phone bills, McCollum said.


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