A Palm Harbor company is one of the firms responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in often unauthorized fees crammed onto consumers' phone bills, according to a congressional investigation.
In the review of daData Inc., and two other firms, investigators contacted hundreds of the companies' customers and have "yet to locate a single individual who says he or she authorized these companies to charge their phone bills or has used a service these companies purportedly offered."
The firms serve as third-party vendors in the sale of various products that include voice mail and fax services.
The report, released Wednesday, is the product of a year-long investigation by the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation into the often bogus charges, a practice referred to as "cramming."
Telephone companies add 300 million third-party charges to customers' bills each year that total about $2 billion, a large percentage of which "are unauthorized cramming charges," the report stated. The charges, often just a few dollars, can be easily missed on lengthy phone bills.
As part of their review, investigators looked at daData, My Service and Support of Minneapolis, and MORE International of Carson City, Nev., because of consumer complaints to local, state and federal agencies as well as low grades by the Better Business Bureau.
The Better Business Bureau gave daData a D rating, noting, "based on BBB files, the business has received a pattern of complaints. Complaints concern unauthorized charges to consumers' phone bills." The Better Business Bureau in Pinellas County has received 159 complaints about the daData over the last three years. There are dozens of other complaints against daData's affiliated companies, too.
Charles R. "Bob" Darst, president of daData, did not return phone calls or messages from the St. Petersburg Times. While the report raises questions about daData's tactics, neither Darst nor his company was charged with any criminal or civil violations, and Darst has no criminal record in Florida.
Darst, who owns a $1.2 million condo in downtown St. Petersburg, is an officer in more than 30 companies registered in Florida. Among the businesses Darst and daData have ties to is popular Tampa Bay nightclub the Venue. Darst was one of the founding officers of the club.
Florida corporate records list Scott Lucas, daData's secretary, treasurer and director, as a manager of the Venue. Lucas could not be reached for comment.
The congressional investigation found that daData, incorporated in 2002, provided "support services … including marketing, quality control, customer service, billing regulatory and accounting services" for about 40 other third-party vendors.
Doug Templeton, an investigator with the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services, said his agency has received various complaints over the years about cramming charges on consumer phone bills.
As he looked into the complaints and comments about the companies, "the common factor was that they always came back to daData," Templeton said.
Part of the trouble for his agency was that many of the complaints came from consumers outside of Florida.
Among the complainants about the cramming charges was Shawn Pearcy of Ridgecrest, Calif. A business called Servicing Solutions Group in Palm Harbor and run by daData was tacking about $30 a month onto his Verizon bill.
"I saw these charges on my bill," Pearcy said. "I said, 'What's this?' "
He complained to the Better Business Bureau and was told he would get a refund. The charges stopped, he said, but he was never credited for the charges.
"It just boggled my mind," Pearcy said.
Bob Elek, a spokesman for Verizon, said his company is paid to include charges for third-party services on customers' bills, but is not involved in providing the extra products.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy for cramming," he said.
Elek said the majority of third-party vendors do not engage in cramming. He said less than 1 percent of the companies Verizon does business with use such practices.
"Sadly, there are bad actors in every walk of life," Elek said.
The practice of including third-party billing on phone bills dates to the early to mid 1990s, when telecoms began including charges from independent long-distance carriers, Elek said. That has expanded to include various other services.
At least one of the companies related to daData had added charges to Verizon bills, Elek said.
If customers find an unauthorized charge on their bills, Elek said, Verizon will suspend that charge. Customers then have to contact the third parties; Verizon will step in to help have a charge removed if there is a problem.
"We insist they be removed," Elek said. "We also do everything we can to educate the public. The most important thing people can do is look closely at their bill."
Times news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.