IP Relay chat

The U.S. Department of Justice is claiming telecommunications-giant AT&T pocketed millions of dollars in reimbursement fees by ignoring fraudulent use of the IP Relay call system.

The IP Relay call service is a website that allows people in the U.S. to communicate by text to a live AT&T operator, who will then read the typed words to the person they’re trying to call on the phone. While the service is intended to help people with hearing or speech impairments, it doesn’t stop people without impairments from using it.

For example, in my youth I recall friends using the service to conduct extremely inappropriate prank conversations through a stranger’s voice — thus creeping out both the poor operator who was forced to read what we typed, as well as the person on the other side of the telephone. You could pretty much get away with saying anything (anything) as long as you didn’t disclose that you didn’t have a speech or hearing impairment.

Little did I know, the prank was actually costing U.S. taxpayers $1.30 per minute, which the Federal Communications Commission reimbursed back to the telephone company in charge of setting up the service.

The only time the FCC wouldn’t reimburse that money was if the calls were made by people outside of the country, or if they were from people who were not hearing impaired. In the early days of the Internet, there weren’t very many ways to reliably determine which calls were valid for reimbursement, so companies like AT&T netted tons of government cash. (I suspect this is why AT&T was perfectly fine with letting us use the service for raunchy prank calls with little objection.)

However, in 2009, the FCC started requiring phone companies to verify the person using the IP Relay service was both in the U.S. and legitimately suffering from a hearing impairment.

This week, the Justice Department claimed AT&T ignored fraudulent use of the service. The Justice Department also estimates that about 95 percent of AT&T’s total IP Relay call volume came from fraudulent users outside of the country, with thousands of calls coming from Nigeria alone.

“Taxpayers must not bear the cost of abuses of the Telecommunications Relay system,” said David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  “Those who misuse funds intended to benefit the hearing- and speech-impaired must be held accountable.”

Unsurprisingly, AT&T has disputed the Justice Department’s claims. A company spokesperson told Ars Techica: “As the FCC is aware, it is always possible for an individual to misuse IP Relay services, just as someone can misuse the postal system or an email account, but FCC rules require that we complete all calls by customers who identify themselves as disabled.”

Full statement from the Justice Department about the AT&T lawsuit below:

The United States has filed a complaint against AT&T Corporation under the False Claims Act for conduct related to its provision of Internet Protocol (IP) Relay services, the Justice Department announced today.   AT&T is a global conglomerate that provides a wide variety of telecommunications services, including Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

IP Relay is a text-based communications service designed to allow hearing-impaired individuals to place telephone calls to hearing persons by typing messages over the Internet that are relayed by communications assistants (CAs) employed by an IP Relay provider.   IP Relay is funded by fees assessed by telecommunications providers to telephone customers, and is provided at no cost to IP Relay users.   The FCC, through the TRS Fund, reimburses IP Relay providers at a rate of approximately $1.30 per minute.   In an effort to reduce the abuse of IP Relay by foreign scammers using the system to defraud American merchants with stolen credit cards and by other means, the FCC in 2009 required providers to verify the accuracy of each registered user’s name and mailing address.

The United States alleges that AT&T violated the False Claims Act by facilitating and seeking federal payment for IP Relay calls by international callers who were ineligible for the service and sought to use it for fraudulent purposes.   The complaint alleges that, out of fears that fraudulent call volume would drop after the registration deadline, AT&T knowingly adopted a non-compliant registration system that did not verify whether the user was located within the United States.   The complaint further contends that AT&T continued to employ this system even with the knowledge that it facilitated use of IP Relay by fraudulent foreign callers, which accounted for up to 95 percent of AT&T’s call volume.   The government’s complaint alleges that AT&T improperly billed the TRS Fund for reimbursement of these calls and received millions of dollars in federal payments as a result.

“Federal funding for Telecommunications Relay Services is intended to help the hearing- and speech-impaired in the United States,” said Stuart F. Delery, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice.   “We will pursue those who seek to gain by knowingly allowing others to abuse this program.”

“Taxpayers must not bear the cost of abuses of the Telecommunications Relay system,” said David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  “Those who misuse funds intended to benefit the hearing- and speech-impaired must be held accountable.”

The claims in the United States’ complaint are allegations only; there has been no determination of liability.

Operator image via AT&T/YouTube screenshot