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November 13, 2005

Scam artists prosper by exploiting service for the deaf

From: USA Today - Nov 13, 2005

By Nestor Ramos, (Sioux Falls, S.D.) Argus Leader
The voice on the line is legitimate, the offer a fraud.

"The person who has called you is deaf or hard of hearing," the operator says, and proceeds to repeat whatever appears on her screen — an order, perhaps, for 150 fuel filters or 200 Bibles.

The operator works at a relay center, such as Communication Service for the Deaf in Sioux Falls. But, in this case, the person she's speaking for is not deaf. He's sitting at a computer in Nigeria, buying goods and paying for them with a bogus credit card number.

Bound by federal regulations that established the system for deaf telecommunication in the United States, the operator, who might know it's a fraud, is powerless to stop it.

And the calls — potentially millions of dollars worth — are on your dime.

The scam plays on sympathy for the deaf, and on vulnerabilities built into a system to help them communicate.

It's lucrative and untraceable. The identities of the perpetrators disappear in the Internet haze before the stolen items cross international waters. Another less costly, but irksome abuse: Callers may use federal rules governing the relay system to force operators to read written pornography out loud.

Fees on interstate long-distance bills fund the relay system.

Mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Telecommunications Relay Services, or TRS, allow millions of deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans to use freely the country's telephone system by teletypewriter machine — a keyboard connected to a telephone — and video relay services.

In 2002, the Federal Communications Commission added a requirement for an Internet-based system.

AT&T, Sprint and MCI are among the companies that offer the service. Firms such as CSD in Sioux Falls, a non-profit agency, contract with them to provide the relay service. Operators serve as intermediaries between deaf people and the hearing world.

Anyone can gain access to the service, free of charge, making it easy for scam artists to exploit.

"Most all of this fraud is coming from Internet-based calls," said Rick Norris, a spokesman for CSD. "Very rarely would a person use a text teletype machine to make these calls."

The majority of the fraudulent calls originate in the African nations of Nigeria or Ghana, he said.

Half of all calls might be illegitimate

Because FCC rules do not allow service providers to monitor content, there is no official tally of fraudulent or pornographic calls.

Rozanne DuBois of the Communications Workers of America — a labor union trying to organize the operators at CSD in Sioux Falls — suggests more than half the calls are not legitimate. The figure is confirmed anecdotally by CSD relay operators, though none would go on the record for fear of losing their jobs.

Norris said that estimate is high, though he acknowledged that CSD cannot legally keep track of the calls.

More calls, more money for interstate operators

Funding for Internet relay service — a total of more than $8 million last month alone — is collected by the National Exchange Carrier Association, or NECA, from any company that provides communications service across state lines. Funding for other interstate relay services, such as video relay and interstate TTY, are collected the same way.

A company's contribution to the fund is based on a percentage of revenue, said Maripat Brennan, fund administrator for NECA, a non-profit organization. The more calls the relay service puts through — fraudulent or otherwise — the more money they receive from the NECA fund.

The cost of the scams to consumers is modest, at most a dollar a month. But when the scams succeed, businesses pay plenty.

No way to report suspicions of fraud

These scams follow traditional lines, Norris said.

Vince DiSanto, general manager of Elite Design in Detroit, received a call from the relay service from a would-be customer looking to buy 10,000 T-shirts. "Seemed a little odd to me. And then when they wanted it shipped to Ghana, I got a little suspicious," DiSanto said. "Then it was printers."

Elite account manager Stogner took an order to be delivered domestically for $10,000 worth of identification card printers, a boon for anyone wanting to print fake IDs. In hours, an anonymous caller told Stogner that his company was being scammed, and that she was the operator who had relayed the call.

Elite stopped shipment of the printers.

DiSanto ended up putting the company's number on the relay service's do-not-call list. But now, legitimate deaf users have no way to call Elite.

Bound by FCC rules to do as callers command

Brennan said Internet relay providers are seeking ways to stop fraudulent calls before they reach the relay operator — at which point the FCC rules prohibit the call from being disconnected.

Because CSD is a non-profit organization, any proceeds from relay and other services go to programs, services and events for deaf Americans, a CSD spokesman said. For-profit relay companies and their contractors receive payments for the fraud calls — CSD's relay operation reported more than $45 million in revenue for relay services for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2004 — and seem to lack incentive to stop the calls.

The only defenses against the scam are public awareness and operators who violate their work rules by alerting businesses they suspect are being ripped off.

Carol Grace owns 141 Auto Sales in Fenton, Mo. Just as she was negotiating over the relay system with someone who wanted to buy a van, she got a second call on her private line telling her the caller probably was trying to defraud her. It saved her a lot of grief. "I assumed he was deaf," Grace said. "I would have done it."

© Copyright 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.