Chances are that you or someone you know will be among 2.7 million AT&T Mobility customers who will be getting a refund soon. The FTC is returning a total of $88 million to people who were billed for premium text message services they didn’t authorize. But even if the settlement doesn’t directly benefit you as a consumer, it offers insights for business people about the steps the FTC takes to get refunds back to consumers – and the seriousness with which we approach that stewardship role.
The FTC settlement was part of a joint action with the FCC and Attorneys General from all 50 states and the District of Columbia to crack down on mobile cramming. The FTC alleged that third parties placed unauthorized charges for trivia, horoscopes, celebrity tidbits, etc., on the phone bills of AT&T customers with AT&T pocketing a sizeable chunk of the take – 35% or more. A portion of the $105 million was paid in the form of penalties to the states and the FCC. The remaining funds – initially, $80 million – were earmarked for a consumer refund program administered by the FTC.
But a program of that size isn’t just a matter of cutting a quick check. There are required procedures to make sure the money is returned to eligible consumers.
Step #1: The FTC hired a refund administrator to manage the complicated logistics. During the 6-month period in which consumers could file refund applications, we received more than 5 million claims from AT&T customers. (Some people submitted more than one claim.)
Next, the refund administrator went over every single claim to make sure it was valid. The process was painstaking, but it was essential for maintaining the integrity of the refund program.
Then came the complicated calculation of how the funds should be distributed. Some good news was that the FTC was able to add more money to the initial $80 million amount through assets recovered in related law enforcement actions against Tatto and Acquinity, third parties that added charges to consumers’ AT&T bills.
In addition, the court required that an independent auditor review each step of the process – another important double-check to make sure the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed. Once the auditor approved the final plan, the refund administrator prepared and printed checks and letters.
What’s next? Current AT&T customers should see a credit on their bill within 75 days. Former AT&T customers will receive a check, the first round of which were mailed today. If you get a check, be sure to cash it within 60 days. (By the way, the FTC never requires people to pay money or turn over their account information to cash refund checks.)
Questions? Call the refund administrator at 1-877-819-9692 or visit ftc.gov/att.