They’re small amounts, usually overlooked by most customers and, according to recent Federal Communications Commission estimates, affect 15 million to 20 million American households.

We’re talking about mystery fees on your phone bills, and chances are you’ve paid them at some point. They’re usually buried deep inside phone bills, generally appearing under generic descriptions — minute use fee, activation, member fee, voice mail or Web hosting.

During Senate hearings on the topic, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., referred to a one-year study by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee which shows about $2 billion a year in “mystery fees” appearing on Americans’ landline phone bills (a problem known as cramming).

Rockefeller asked an industry representative why major companies such as AT&T haven’t curtailed unauthorized third-party charges from going onto customers’ phone bills.

“It’s illegal, it’s wrong,” Rockefeller said. “Why haven’t you cleaned up your act?”

We agree, and wonder the same thing.

In the meantime, consider these suggestions from the FCC to protect yourself: Contact your phone company and opt out of third-party billing; know your phone bill so that you may recognize unusual charges; be careful when supplying your name, address and phone number for promotions, coupons and sweepstakes; read all forms and promotional materials before signing up for telephone or other services; don’t ignore small charges, which can add up to big amounts.

— Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer, July 15

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