Telephone bills, which contain information for an AT&T customer, lie in a pile May 12, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois.
Telephone bills, which contain information for an AT&T customer, lie in a pile May 12, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: For most of us the word cramming brings with it memories of late nights in the library getting ready for exams. The Federal Communications Commission, however, has no such memories and says cramming has another meaning entirely. It says consumers ought read their phone bills more carefully.

Sally Herships has more.

Sally Herships: Jeff Kagan is a technology analyst. He says 20 years ago phone bills were simple.

Jeff Kagan: You got a bill,it said what you were charged for, and that was it.

Then, says Kagan, the FCC decided to make things clearer for consumers -- by having phone companies list every little charge on the bill. And we all know what that got us. A mile long phone bill that's impossible to decode.

Kagan: We are all paying for charges that we don't have to.

Millions of us, anyway. The practice is known as cramming, or sticking unauthorized charges into your phone bill -- usually your land line bill. The FCC estimates that up to 20 million households have been stuck with cramming charges that can range from $1.99 to $19.99 a month.

But Kagan says its not only phone companies who are to blame.

Kagan: Oh no, no. It's telephone companies and it's many other companies who use the telephone companies as their billing partners.

John Breyault: Anything from long distance services, voicemail, directory listings, even things like diet plans or yoga classes.

John Breyault is with the National Consumers league. He says consumers need to scour their bills.

Breyault: If you don't recognize the name of the company that's listed on the bill, if you don't know what the services were provided by the listed companies.

The FCC has proposed more than a $11 million in fines against several telephone companies accused of cramming. And is considering new rules to make bills clearer and to fight mystery fees.

I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace.