How closely do you read every monthly statement and bill? Maybe not closely enough - judging from new warnings by federal officials and an intriguing case before the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

One way or another, both involve what consumers view as "mystery charges" on their phone bills. Basic rules of fairness, not to mention common sense, suggest that consumers should know what they're paying for. But if you pay the bottom line unthinkingly, you put yourself at extra risk.

Of course, asking about a charge isn't always simple. The Pennsylvania case began when Bernice Keebler called to ask about $4.19 in charges for six calls made to mysterious numbers - mysterious because Verizon wouldn't tell Keebler where she'd called unless she got a lawyer and a subpoena. An agency judge recently recommended that Verizon be fined $1,000 for failing to provide "adequate customer service" for not identifying Keebler's calls when she called to question her bill.

A different kind of mystery charge was the focus of a report last week from a Senate committee and a proposed rulemaking by the Federal Communications Commission: "cramming," in which unauthorized charges are tucked onto phone bills by third-party businesses that strike deals with local phone companies and, recently, wireless carriers.

Cramming is an old problem that dates to the deregulatory fervor of the 1980s and '90s, when phone companies won the lucrative right to bill for other companies. The trouble was that some of those third parties turned out to be less than savory. One cramming scheme involved the Gambino crime family.

Now cramming is drawing new attention from the FCC and congressional investigators. Last week, a Senate Commerce Committee report suggested that fraud is behind a "substantial percentage" of the more than $2 billion a year billed by phone carriers for third-party charges.

Want another reason to pay attention? A recent FCC study found that 19 out of 20 cramming victims aren't aware they've been crammed. That's hardly a surprise, since the whole concept requires that crammers design their charges to look small and innocuous.

The idea is that you may well not notice a $4 or $5 charge on your bill for "web services" or "voice mail." If you see them, you may think the charges are legit. Over time, they add up to a lot of wasted money to you, and ill-gotten gains to the crammers.

The bottom line is clear: You can hope that regulators and Congress will do more to protect you. But right now, the best protection remains buyer beware - and that includes careful scrutiny of your phone bill as if it were another credit-card statement.

A consumer stands up. I first wrote last month about Bernice Keebler, a Willow Grove woman who decided to become a thorn in the side of Verizon.

Keebler had been quietly outraged by Verizon's response when she questioned charges for six calls. Since they were "local," Verizon said, she wasn't entitled to the details provided for "regional toll" or long-distance calls. But since they were beyond the narrow area in which she gets unlimited local calls with her $24-a-month plan, they were charged by the minute.

Keebler wanted to know where she'd called, because she tries to use her cellphone for anything that generates extra costs. She likened Verizon's response to a restaurant billing her $100 for "food," then refusing to say what it thought she'd ordered.

She may have recently acquired a couple of valuable allies: Mary D. Long, a PUC administrative law judge, and Irwin A. "Sonny" Popowsky, the state's official consumer advocate.

Long's findings last month stopped short of recommending that the PUC overturn the 1999 tariff that Verizon relied on in saying she needed a lawyer and a subpoena - the same tariff that says a customer who wants detailed billing of local calls must pay a $40 setup fee plus 2 cents per call.

But Long sided with Keebler on a key point: that as "a basic matter of fair business practice," a consumer should be able to ask what a charge is for - without having to hire a lawyer and get a subpoena. She wrote of Verizon's stance: "By no reasonable standard could this be considered reasonable customer service."

Popowsky said Friday that his office might intervene in the issue.

"People ought to know, when they get a bill, what they're being charged for," Popowsky said. "This is an issue that I think ought to be addressed."

Rules against cramming? Over the next two months, the FCC will be weighing the possibility of imposing new rules to protect consumers against cramming.

So far, the agency's proposal centers on stronger disclosure. But it is seeking public comment on whether it should go further, perhaps by requiring carriers to allow consumers to block all third-party charges - as Verizon already does, by the way, via a free service called Bill Block.

If you want to weigh in, go to http://go.philly.com/fcc, click on "Submit a Filing (Express)," and select the cramming procedure, which is Docket No. 11-116.

Meanwhile, read your bill more carefully. Who knows what awaits?

Contact columnist Jeff Gelles
at 215-854-2776