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March 18, 2004

Scam artists abusing relay system for deaf

From: Great Falls Tribune - Great Falls,MT,USA - Mar, 18, 2004

By Jo Dee Black

Kevin rancher Roxy Gillespie got a call several months ago from a Montana Telecommunications Relay Services operator who said she had a man on the line who wanted to buy Gillespie's product.

Telecommunications Relay Services operators act as go-betweens for hard of hearing or deaf people using Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf. The deaf person types text into the device, which is plugged into a telephone. The operator reads the text to the person on the other line.

Gillespie was suspicious. The product she had for sale on the Internet was $10,000 worth of bull semen.

"'Product' isn't terminology used by someone with a ranch background when talking about semen," Gillespie said.

Turns out the call originated in Nigeria. The caller was most likely a scam artist who avoids paying long-distance charges by abusing the Telecommunications Relay Services program.

It's one of the latest underhanded ways thieves are using new technology, including computers.

"This is an issue we are just learning about ourselves," said Steve Lunceford, spokesman for Sprint Relay, the company with the technical contract for Montana Relay. "This type of use ties up the relay operator's time, which leaves legitimate users waiting longer in a queue. This is a free service, borne by the phone companies and customers, so that type of use is fraud, pure and simple."

State Telecommunications Relay Service programs, mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, are funded various ways. Montanans pay a 10 cent monthly fee per phone line, both land lines and wireless, to fund the program.

The advent of personal computers and the Internet mean today Telecommunications Relay Services users can reach operators online. The program is named Internet Protocol Relay.

In February, the federal Internet Fraud Complaint Center put out an intelligence note saying the agency received a dramatic increase of reports of such scam artist abuse of the Internet Protocol Relay system.

Havre's Computer Center owner Paul Rainey gets two to three calls a week via a Relay operator with people on the line wanting to buy hundreds of computers.

"They are using stolen credit cards and they want you to ship the computers overseas," he said.

Rainey found a quick way to end the calls. He only accepts PayPal, an online financial service owned by eBay, the online auction company.

Users set up accounts using their credit cards or bank accounts. If they find something they want to buy online, they draw from their PayPal account and the seller gets an e-mail from PayPal notifying them of payment. To access the payment, the seller must have a PayPal account too.

Security procedures are set up to prevent subscribers from using phony bank accounts and stolen credit cards, said PayPal spokeswoman Amanda Pires.

"About 99 percent of the time when I say I only take PayPal, those callers trying a scam hang up," Rainey said. "I have a legitimate customer who needs the Relay system. He just answers 'yeah, I know, I'm from Chinook'."

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