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6 Ways You Might Be Getting Scammed on Your Monthly Bills

Some companies design their fee structures and agreements in an intentionally confusing manner.

Unless you’re a child, Amish, or you live in an off-the-grid commune in the boondocks, you probably pay a number of monthly bills. Many of those bills are likely paid to major corporations that may be monopolies in your area, which means that you, the consumer, should always be on alert for various ways they may be trying to screw you.

You’ve also likely been pressured to sign up for an automatic bill payment system from somewhere like your bank or cell phone company. Obviously these sorts of arrangements are great for companies, ensuring they’ll get their money on time each month. They may be right for some consumers as well; if you have regular paychecks coming in and aren’t concerned about over-drafting, it can be nice to “set it and forget it” with your bills. But one danger with auto bill pay systems is that users may not give their bills a close read each month. The whole point of signing up for automatic bill pay is so you don’t have to think about your bills each month, so why would you?

It’s this sort of mentality corporations are banking on. (Yes, sometimes companies make honest mistakes, but if you think mistakes account for all or even most of the incorrect bills on this planet, you’re fooling yourself.)

In a way we do corporations’ work for them, because the vast majority of us don’t read our bills as thoroughly as we should. There are lots of reasons for this -- denial, laziness, a wariness of confusing corporate-speak and pages upon pages of line items -- but there are even more reasons for us to be more vigilant. Here are some of them.

1. Your bill may contain gross inaccuracies.

A story about a French woman who got hit with a €11,721,000,000,000,000 ($15 quadrillion) phone bill made headlines this week, for obvious reasons:

After she terminated a contract with the phone company Bouygues Telecom early, San Jose was told that she would have to pay a cancellation fee. The exact amount would be sent in a final bill to her home in late September, the company said, according to the French news provider Sud Ouest....

"There were so many zeros I couldn't even work out how much it was," San Jose told Sud Ouest. And though it seemed like an obvious billing mistake, San Jose had a hard time convincing the phone company that was the case.

According to Sud Ouest, representatives at Bouygues Telecom initially insisted the amount -- nearly 6,000 times larger than France's 2011 GDP -- would automatically be withdrawn from her bank account.

Ok so a $15 quadrillion overdraft probably wouldn’t go unnoticed by you or your bank. It’s an egregious case, to be sure. But what about Grace Edwards, the Connecticut woman whose electric company incorrectly charged her roughly $35/month for some streetlights outside her house? That would be easy enough to miss if you didn’t know how to read your electric meter. The catch in the Edwards story is that she was overcharged like that for 25 years, and Connecticut Light & Power recently had to reimburse her more than $10,000 because of the mistake. The lesson here: small billing inaccuracies can add up.

2. Phone companies are notorious for “cramming.”

If “cramming” sounds gross to you, that’s because it is. The FCC defines cramming as “the practice of placing unauthorized, misleading or deceptive charges on your telephone bill.”

Crammers rely on confusing telephone bills in an attempt to trick consumers into paying for services they did not authorize or receive, or that cost more than the consumer was led to believe....