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May 12, 2004

Internet relay service for deaf gives life to threats

From: Pittsburgh Post Gazette - Pittsburgh,PA,USA - May 12, 2004

By Linda Wilson Fuoco, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The 11 p.m. telephone call would frighten most people, but it was especially scary for a 15-year-old girl.

"I'm watching you," said the person who had dialed the girl's cell phone. "I know where you live. I will get you."

The girl told the caller to stop.

The woman said she was an AT&T Internet Relay Service operator required by law to read the entire message.

The relay is used by deaf and hearing-impaired people who type a message on an Internet Relay site, which connects them to a relay operator, in this case, employed by AT&T, who calls the recipient and reads the message. The operator will type that person's message back to the deaf person.

When the AT&T relay operator continued reading the threats, the girl hung up, and told her parents what had happened.

The entire family was upset.

The girl's father, John Maroney, of Brookline, called AT&T customer service to complain.

A company representative told the family the relay operator did what she was required to do. The company said that, by law, they could not tell the family who had placed the call.

AT&T said its personnel could not block that person from making more threatening calls. The company could, however, put a "trap" on the phone to block all calls from the relay. That's what the family decided to do.

The daughter is neither deaf nor hearing-impaired, and has no friends or relatives who use the relay, so blocking all relay calls is not a problem.

However, the family wonders why the operator is required to break other laws by reading threatening, obscene or harassing messages.

The girl's mother, Patty Maroney, said the threatening call to her daughter "upset our whole family."

The family talked to another AT&T supervisor "who did not budge from that position. They said no records are kept" on relay calls "and nothing is recorded. We called Pittsburgh police. They didn't even take a report," Maroney said.

Roberto Cruz, a spokesman for AT&T's consumer division, confirmed what the Maroney family was told. The relay system "is an outstanding and vitally necessary [service]," he said. "Unfortunately, people can abuse it.

"Here is the issue: confidentiality. Just like you and I have a right to a confidential phone call," Cruz said in a telephone interview. "No one can record our conversation or make a transcript of it."

However, the reporter or anyone else who receives a call from Cruz can confirm where his call is coming from by using Caller ID or by hanging up and dialing *69.

Telephone companies can identify callers if police or the district attorney's office get a search warrant to learn who is making threatening, harassing or obscene phone calls, all of which are illegal.

That is not possible with the relay service.

All Internet Relay calls are confidential "in accordance with the requirements set forth in the Federal Communications Commission Declaratory Ruling 02-121, according to information on AT&T's Web site (

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 also requires companies to make telephone service accessible to the deaf and hearing impaired.

Calls like the Brookline family received "are crimes and need to be reported to the police," said Rosemary Kimball, director of media relations at the consumer and government affairs bureau of the Federal Communications Commission.

She conceded that there was no way to trace who made the Internet relay call to the daughter, so there's really no way to prosecute the offender. "At this point, there is nothing that can be done about this," Kimball said. "Congress needs to pass some laws on this."

Tracing communications made by way of the Internet is difficult, if not impossible, in some cases.

The deaf and the hearing-impaired who rely on the Internet Relay are also victimized by it, said Jim House, director of member services and public relations at Telecommunications for the Deaf Inc.

"The service has been around for more than 10 years," said House, who is deaf and answered a reporter's questions through an interpreter. "It brings deaf people closer to society. It's the only way that deaf people can contact family and friends and do things like order pizza. They were never able to do that before."

TDI helped with the development and implementation of the Internet Relay Service "and the number one principal that we kept in mind was that all calls have to be confidential," House said.

Deaf people "want the ability to see Caller ID. When someone calls, we have no way of knowing if it's a telemarketer or a family member. In some states, the push is on to allow relay users to get Caller ID."

Unfortunately, the relay has been used by scam artists, including a scheme similar to the e-mails that purport to be from Nigeria or other African countries and have been used to bilk people out of millions of dollars.

Businesses also have been defrauded by relay users who order items that they never pay for.

"As a result, businesses end up blocking all relay calls," House said. "The law says businesses can't discriminate against people who call on the relay, but I think businesses have every right to screen credit card orders."

The deaf and hearing impaired who get threatening messages are in a special bind, House said, because they cannot have only the offensive calls blocked. They would have to block all relay calls, and that would rob them of a vital lifeline.

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