The U.S. Department of Justice is accusing AT&T of knowing that a free program set up to aid deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans was being abused primarily by Nigerian thieves, costing the government more than $16 million that it had paid to the carrier to support the program.
The Associated Press reported March 22 that the Justice Department had filed the lawsuit, explaining that the federal government ordered all carriers to register their users, after it was discovered that callers from overseas were using the system to purchase goods with stolen credit cards and counterfeit checks.
The DOJ lawsuit, reports AP, "said AT&T failed to adopt procedures to detect or prevent fraudulent users from registering. The government said [AT&T] feared its call volumes would drop once fraudulent users were prevented from calling on the system."
For each call placed on the system, which enables users to type messages over the Internet, the government reimburses AT&T $1.30 per minute. It estimates that only 5 percent of the calls it reimbursed AT&T for were legitimate.
U.S. carriers are required to provide the I.P. Relay-based service under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The New York Times explains that AT&T and other carriers "employ intermediaries," who act as the middle person, conversing between the hearing and hearing-impaired callers.
"AT&T has followed the FCC's rules for providing IP Relay services for disabled customers and for seeking reimbursement for those services," said AT&T spokesman Marty Richter. "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."
The lawsuit follows from a whistle-blower case that came to court in Pittsburgh March 21. It was originally filed in 2010 by Constance Lyttle, a former AT&T call center worker. Should the DOJ recover funds, reports the AP, "Lyttle would receive a portion of it."
The government is said to be seeking triple damages.
The ADA is a broad-reaching piece of legislation that has had a significant impact on the technology industry, stating that the inability for a person to obtain and use information easily is a form of discrimination. However, the I.P. Relay service solution, which the Federal Communications Commission in 2001 said carriers could be reimbursed for using, has for sometime been an easy target for abuse.
In 2004, Broadband Reports said the system "has been ripe with abuse, from kids forcing operators to verbalize sexually graphic comments for amusement, to Nigerian scammers using the technology to con the disabled."
It estimated that scams constituted 90 percent of the calls, "all paid for with your tax dollars."
City Paper, out of Baltimore, also ran a story in 2004 describing the experience of an MCI call center worker, Robert Grodevant, who estimated that 60 to 80 percent of the calls he dealt with were scams, lasting 30 to 90 minutes per callversus legitimate calls, which were far shorter, with deaf users ordering a pizza or calling a friend.
"On one given day, I calculated that I purchased over $40,000 worth of laptops, inkjet cartridges and T-shirts, all shipped to Africa," Grodevant told City Paper. "Lately, they have it shipped to a relative in the U.S., and they forward it to Africa."
In the 2004 article, AT&T spokesman Roberto Cruz said, when asked whether the carrier allows the scams as a way to increase revenue: "It's antithetical to the way we would do business around here." He called the scams "a growing trend" and an unavoidable fact of life.