Phone Service for Deaf a Target for Abuse

A federally subsidized telephone service uses the Internet to link deaf and hearing callers, but the service is plagued by pranksters and outright fraud. Even businesses are getting scammed.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

For decades, most deaf or speech-impaired people who wanted to use the phone had to rely on friends or family for help. Or they had to use an expensive TTY machine. Then three years ago a service called IP Relay began. It allows calls to be placed over the Internet without special equipment. The service opened up a new world of communication for hearing-impaired people. And, as NPR's Ted Robbins reports, it also created a new vehicle for scam artists and crank callers.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

IP Relay is one of the most convenient ways for deaf people to talk by telephone with hearing people. Here's how it works. I'm on my computer at one of the Web sites that place Relay calls and I'm going to call my editor. The screen is prompting me to type in the number of the person I want to talk with.

(Soundbite of typing)

ROBBINS: I hit a red button on the screen that says `connect to Relay operator.' OK. Now another screen pops up. And it says it's dialing. And then the number. Ringing. And when my editor answers her phone, she hears this...

Unidentified Woman's Voice: Hello. A person is using a free Internet service to communicate with you. When you hear the words `go ahead,' it is your turn to speak, and I will type everything heard. Please, speak directly to the caller and say, `Go ahead,' when you are ready for a response.

ROBBINS: So as my editor speaks to the operator, her words appear on my computer screen. The problem is, I'm using this service and I'm not deaf. And not all of the calls are this benign.

Ms. LISA MARKKULA (Former IP Relay Operator): At an absolute minimum, 75 percent of the calls are not legitimate.

ROBBINS: Lisa Markkula is a former IP Relay operator in Tucson.

Ms. MARKKULA: They're either fraud or they're these disgusting calls meant to humiliate operators.

ROBBINS: Many of the fraudulent calls come from Nigeria. The callers place orders with businesses in the US, Markkula says, for all kinds of merchandise.

Ms. MARKKULA: Tires, wedding gowns, laptops, cell phones...

Unidentified Woman #1: Shoes.

Ms. MARKKULA: ...balloons.

ROBBINS: Two years ago, the Lifeway Christian store in Baltimore was almost scammed out of thousands of dollars' worth of Bibles this way. And the retail chain has had more than 500 similar fraud attempts at its other outlets since. Melissa Mitchell(ph) is director of loss prevention for the company. She says IP Relay is a perfect cover for criminals.

Ms. MELISSA MITCHELL (Director, Loss Prevention, Lifeway Christian Stores): It really lends itself to a greater air of legitimacy to have an Internet Relay operator saying this person is hearing-impaired. They're setting up a church in Africa. They need to have these Bibles. They need them right away.

ROBBINS: Some providers began blocking calls coming from overseas. Sprint says it's reduced the problem. But spokesperson Debra Peterson(ph) admits there's little hard data to prove it.

Ms. DEBRA PETERSON (Spokesperson, Sprint): We don't maintain records due to confidentiality reasons, so basically what we have to do is just look anecdotally, talking with the representatives about what they're experiencing.

ROBBINS: But it's relatively easy to hide an overseas Internet address, and the operators and retailers we spoke to for this story say the fraud calls dipped only temporarily. And fraud is not the only problem. Remember operator Lisa Markkula mentioned humiliation.

Ms. MARKKULA: A bunch of frat boys are sitting in a room around a computer with a bunch of beer. And they get online with Sprint or with one of the other Relay services and they type in pornographic calls so that they can all listen in.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

ROBBINS: Something like this.

Unidentified Man: Hello?

Unidentified Woman #2: This is IP Relay operator 7610 with a Relay call. Do you know how to use Relay?

Unidentified Man: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #2: OK. Relay will begin now. Hey, Tiger. Go ahead.

Unidentified Man: Hey, cutie. What are you doing? Go ahead.

Unidentified Woman #2: Nothing much. Just sitting here playing with my (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: Oh, I know you are.

ROBBINS: This call was posted on the Web site wickedcrazy.com. Shock jock Howard Stern has also discovered the service. He's aired several extremely graphic sex calls placed by his staff through IP Relay. At this point, you might be asking `Why would an operator repeat anything that's typed?' Because that's what the law says they must do. Sprint's Debra Peterson says the operator is basically a switch.

Ms. PETERSON: The person is supposed to be transparent, invisible, in the conversation. All they're doing is relaying messages back and forth between the parties.

ROBBINS: An AT&T spokesman says its operators may hang up on abusive callers, so there appears to be no consistent standard. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it's illegal for a retail business to block Relay calls, but those burned by fraud do it anyway. That can be extremely frustrating for deaf users like Erin Casler. She's with the advocacy group Telecommunications for the Deaf. Speaking through a Relay operator, she recalls a hang-up by her own auto mechanic.

Ms. ERIN CASLER: (Through Relay Operator) The interpreter was explaining to you that this was a deaf person calling, please don't hang up. And they told me that they thought I was a terrorist or, you know, something like that, calling, and, you know all I wanted to do was get my car fixed.

ROBBINS: The FBI says it's investigating the fraud calls as a possible method of funding terrorist organizations. And last year the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that regulates IP Relay, put out a public notice, warning merchants and consumers to be on the lookout for fraud. We asked the FCC to talk about the issue. A representative said the agency is working with industry to solve the problems. But the FCC refused our repeated requests for an on-air interview. Former Relay operator Lisa Markkula says there's a simple solution.

Ms. MARKKULA: All you have to do is qualify users and register them, issue them user names and passwords. You don't hand out handicap license plates to everybody who wants them. They have to provide some proof. They have to provide a letter from a doctor saying they need this benefit.

ROBBINS: But organizations like Telecommunications For the Deaf oppose that idea. Erin Casler says registration moves the deaf away from what's called functional equivalence, the idea that calling should be as similar as possible for the deaf as it is for the hearing.

Ms. CASLER: (Through Relay Operator) Registration gives, I think, a lot of people think government an excuse to perhaps discriminate against certain people, groups, and our privacy, we feel, would be taken away from us. It would not give us the functional equivalency that the hearing community would have.

ROBBINS: Instead, Casler would like to see a public education campaign about IP Relay abuse. It isn't just the deaf who have a stake in this problem. This service is paid for by everyone with a telephone. The monthly charge is right there in your phone bill, buried among all the miscellaneous charges under telecommunications relay fund. Relay service providers, including AT&T, Sprint and MCI, are reimbursed at the rate of $1.28 a minute to process the calls. And now that the service has been extended to cell phones, use of Internet relay is expected to climb from six million to nine million minutes per month by next spring. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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