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FCC Looking at Abuse of Phone Services for the Deaf

The Federal Communications Commission this week asked for input on ways to curtail the amount of credit card fraud being carried out by criminals abusing Internet-based "telecommunications relay services" designed to help the the deaf and hard-of-hearing make telephone calls.

Criminals have been abusing TRS for years, taking advantage of the fact that by law, the operator who relays messages between the two parties cannot terminate or interfere in any way with the call. Much of this type of fraud is believed to be committed by the same people who send out Nigerian "419" e-mail scams: The crooks will place a call to an online merchant using an Internet-based TRS service and order goods or services with a stolen credit card number.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act bars U.S. businesses from refusing to accept purchases over TRS services, a number of companies are so fed up with TRS fraud that they have done just that, according to Ronald L. Lanier, director of the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

What's more, some TRS providers, including Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Communication Services for the Deaf, have recently enacted policies allowing relay personnel to privately alert a merchant while a call is ongoing if they suspect the caller may be trying to commit fraud. CSD, a private nonprofit company, is the largest TRS provider in the nation, serving more than 12 million people each year in its partnership with Sprint.

CSD spokesman Richard Norris said new procedures the company has put in place have helped virtually eliminate fraudulent calls over its TRS services.

"If there are certain criteria met in a call that [cause it to be] red-flagged, we will call in a supervisor who verifies the criteria and then interjects and alerts the business on the other end that we suspect this could be a fraudulent call," Norris said. "We want ... the business community to be confident ... that calls we are processing are legitimate calls."

That kind of interference, however, also is technically in violation of the FCC's TRS rules, said Cheryl Heppner, executive director of the Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons.

Heppner said relay services for the deaf are required to be "functionally equivalent" to plain old telephone calls, even though there is a third party in the middle facilitating the conversation.

"This means that the third party is to be transparent and only to accurately relay information back and forth from the person on one end to the person on the other," she wrote to me in an instant-message exchange. "Adding monitoring responsibilities changes the nature of the service. It requires the third party to become a judge rather than a conduit. The integrity of TRS becomes lost when consumers cannot trust the confidentiality of their calls."

I couldn't find anyone who knew of exact statistics on the amount of credit card fraud that occurs over Internet TRS each year. Heppner said the percentage of relay calls subject to abuse apparently fluctuates on a daily basis, but in December one estimate put in the double digits. Besides the credit card aspect, Heppner said, some relay providers see a seasonal spike in misuse when students are out of school and make prank calls.

In a meeting earlier this week, the FCC made the decision to accept comments on ways to help prevent further misuse, and whether it should adopt rules "to guide the discretion of TRS providers in determining whether a call is legitimate."

Fraudulent and prank calls over TRS have a distributed cost across society. That's because TRS services are paid for by small surcharges added to your cell and land-line phone bills (usually around 10 to 15 cents per month).

By Brian Krebs  |  May 5, 2006; 11:28 AM ET
Categories:  Fraud  
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When I was a freshman in college, some of the guys I lived with used TRS to make prank calls on one occasion. Had I known it was funded by taxes, I wouldn't have thought it was very funny.

Posted by: William | May 5, 2006 1:50 PM | Report abuse

One reason that this abuse continues is that the companies that operate IP Relay services are paid a fortune from the service fund even though the same costs aren't involved as when people were using tty terminals for service. There are some very simple ways that TRS IP Relay violation could be halted, but it's not profitable. The FCC has to promulgate guidelines.

Interestingly, many operators take matters into their own hands. This is a great forum for IP operators, and this thread is about how operators have used techniques that toe the line on rules but still dump the fraudsters:

There's a long article at O'Reilly Network on this whole scam issue, too:

Also this site explaining the fraud and how the FCC could avoid faciliating it:

I occasionally get email from Nigerian fraudsters trying to order expensive books which they apparently they resell into Russia (why, I don't know) -- books like Black's Law.

Posted by: Glenn Fleishman | May 5, 2006 3:29 PM | Report abuse

The problem not from the outside like nigeria. Its also from the inside too like CSD and their recent sweep took care of that problem in time.

Posted by: White Rabbit | May 6, 2006 11:06 PM | Report abuse

Rugby players spend a lot of time physical training Compared to other form of sports.I have read the
Rugby laws mentioned on this site. It's a gripping sport which targets the grip strength and the active mindedness of a player. American football and rugby league are also primarily collision sports, but their tackles tend to terminate much more quickly. For professional rugby, players are often chosen on the basis of their size and apparent strength and they develop the skill and power over the passage of time. In modern rugby considerable attention is given to fitness and aerobic conditioning as well as basic weight training.

Posted by: Rugby Fan Steve | August 24, 2006 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Hello Everyone. I was an IP Relay Operator for MCI for one year. I was forced to put these fraud calls through ONE AFTER ANOTHER, all day long. Before the company decided to implement the "red flag" procedures described in the article, most days at LEAST 80-85% of my day was spent putting through fraud calls. The "red flag" procedures toned it down a bit, until the Nigerians found ways around it. They're still at it, day after day, all day long... and operators still spend most of their day putting these calls through. The operators hands are tied, unless they take matters into their own hands. I was one of the operators that handled things my own way, and on my own time to try to help the victims and would-be victims of these scams. While I worked there, almost every day I would call these people who were about to be scammed on my own time. I still warn victims that other operators alert me to. I know a lot of operators that still do. One last thing...

The operator's website/forum that someone posted above has been virtually abandoned, and most of the informative information meant for would-be victims and the general public has been taken off. The operators there created a new website, and you can read all about the problems with IP Relay at this link:

Posted by: relay operator | September 25, 2006 12:34 PM | Report abuse

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