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April 9, 2004

Overseas crooks abuse phone service for deaf

From: Arizona Daily Star - Tucson,AZ,USA - Apr 9, 2004

By Tim Steller


Overseas scam artists have hijacked a telephone relay system for deaf people and turned phone operators in Tucson and nationwide into full-time facilitators of fraud.

Operators at Tucson's Communication Service for the Deaf call center used to spend their shifts helping hearing- and speech-impaired Americans make calls. But since January their workdays are dominated by Internet calls from Nigeria and elsewhere.

The callers try to use stolen credit-card numbers to make big purchases of merchandise from American companies. The operators often suspect fraud, but they can't just hang up. Federal rules require them to make the calls and keep the contents strictly confidential.

Merchants stand to lose big if they fall for the ruse - callers often try to order more than $10,000 worth of expensive equipment. People who legitimately use the service fear businesses will stop taking their calls, thinking they are fraud artists.

"It makes me angry because it gives relay services a bad name," said Alan Amann, 32, an assistant state attorney general who represents deaf people on the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing. Relay services are "absolutely essential" to deaf and hearing-impaired people who use them for everything from ordering a pizza to checking on a store's closing hours, Amann said.

The only possible beneficiaries are the successful scammers - profiting from free phone calls intended for deaf people - and the four phone companies that provide Internet relay service. They are paid for the calls by the minute.

Telephone relay services for the deaf have been required by the Americans with Disabilities Act since 1993. For the most part, relay users have used TTY machines, a device like a typewriter that attaches to a telephone and lets people type their half of a conversation. An operator, in turn, reads the words to the other party in the call.

In the last two years, four phone companies began offering Internet relay services, which let deaf people make telephone calls by plugging a number into a Web site. Operators at call centers like the one here then phone the requested number and pass each party's words to the other, speaking to the recipient of the call and writing Internet messages to the caller.

What started as a trickle of apparently fraudulent calls late last year turned into a flood in the new year, said Chelsey Bishop and Andrea Philips, former operators at Communication Service for the Deaf, or CSD, located at Foothills Mall. Suddenly a job that was low-paid but felt noble was spoiled.

"I'd go days and days or weeks without getting a real call from a deaf person," Bishop said.

"It made me insane," Philips said.

The company's Northwest Side call center has been receiving at least 7,000 Internet-relay calls a day, and another 19,000 or more have been going to other call centers operated by the same company, according to an internal memo from Communication Service for the Deaf. Nationwide, the use of Internet relay services is 79 percent higher this year than last, according to the National Exchange Carrier Association.

The volume has become so intense that another CSD memo offered operators counseling to deal with the frustration of the calls. The company operates call centers under contract with Sprint and employs about 200 people at its local center.

Bishop, 19, said she was fired from CSD March 30 for making a personal call while working. Philips, 18, said she was fired the same day for calling a Sprint manager to complain about the abuse of the Internet relay service. The two are roommates.

Paul Hawkins, manager of the Tucson call center, declined to comment.

It was easy to know which calls were the fraudulent ones, Bishop and Philips said, because the callers would immediately request 10 or 20 pieces of high-priced merchandise, such as laptop computers, without asking the price. Other indicators:

° Callers would try to use multiple credit cards, sometimes with close-together numbers, but didn't know identifying information about the account.

° They were ignorant of the telephone etiquette used by deaf and hearing-impaired people, and often became rude.

° They'd use poor English that sometimes appeared to come out of a translating program.

° Many would ask to have the merchandise shipped immediately to Nigeria or Ghana.

The calls are being made to businesses all over the United States, including some in Tucson.

Robert Nuenke received as many as three such calls a day during March at his car-stereo shop, Absolute Sound Systems, 4662 E. Speedway. The calls would last from 30 to 45 minutes each and the callers would ask for the highest-priced items in big volumes, Nuenke said.

"The amounts are always in the $10-, $20- or $30,000 range," he said. "It didn't take us long before we decided to cut these conversations short."

Similar calls came in to Simutek, an Apple computer dealer at 3136 E. Fort Lowell Road, said salesman Adam Meyer.

"They wanted computers based on price and didn't know what they were ordering," Meyer said. "They actually got kind of mean and started asking the operator to yell, 'Sell me the computer now!' "

Neither Meyer nor Nuenke said they actually shipped the the callers any merchandise, and Tom Collier, president of the Better Business Bureau of Southern Arizona, said he has not received any complaints from victimized merchants.

But over time there could be a different group of victims: the estimated 9 percent of Arizona's population that is deaf or hearing impaired.

"Without these services, our ability to participate in the work force would be severely limited," Amann, of the State Commission for the Deaf, said in a telephone interview through a relay operator.

Amann fears that the more people use relay services fraudulently, the less likely business people are to accept the calls. Even before the fraudulent calls began, he said, people at some stores would think he was a solicitor and hang up.

During his interview with the Star, Amann was using a TTY machine, but he has used Internet relay service, too. The wait for an operator, on average, is longer using Internet relay, he said.

That could be because of a surge in the use of Internet relay, including the fraudulent calls.

In February, the National Exchange Carrier Association asked the FCC to boost - by 48 percent - a tax it charges long-distance carriers for relay services, citing unexpectedly high usage of Internet and video relay services. The association manages the "TRS Fund," which pays for all interstate relay calls, Internet relay calls and video relay services; separate funds pay for in-state relay calls.

It's unclear how much of the growth in the use of Internet relay services was due to fraudulent calls, said Maripat Bren-nan, TRS Fund administrator.

"Certainly that could be a portion, but I don't think that's the majority of the increase," Brennan said.

Spokesmen for Sprint, AT&T and Hamilton Telecommunications said the companies are aware of the fraudulent use of their services. But they said it's impossible to know what percentage of their Internet-relay calls are fraudulent, because the calls are confidential.

They said they're working with the FCC to resolve the problem.

"We're watching it, we're monitoring it, but privacy is key, and no records are kept," said Roberto Cruz, a spokesman for AT&T.

The four companies that offer Internet relay service are paid by the minute for the use of the service, out of a fund made up of contributions from 4,300 companies, Brennan said.

But Internet relay service makes up a minuscule fraction of revenues for Sprint, said company spokesman Steve Lunceford.

"It's not a financial thing for us," he said.

° Contact reporter Tim Steller at 434-4086 or at

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