March 23, 2012
Is AT&T Using Nigerian Scammers To Defraud Taxpayers?
IP relay call systems allow people in the US to communicate by text to a live AT&T operator, who will then read the typed words to people with hearing or speech impairments they are trying to call on the phone. However AT&T is accused of pocketing millions of dollars from US taxpayers with fraudulent use of that system by the US Justice Department.
The service cannot, however, stop people without impairments from using it, writes Tom Cheredar for Venture Beat.“We will pursue those who seek to gain by knowingly allowing others to abuse this program,” said Stuart Delery, the acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department´s civil division.
Dallas-based AT&T is being sued by the Justice Department for failing to detect or prevent fraudulent users from registering. The government said the company feared its call volumes would drop once fraudulent users were prevented from calling on the system. The government reimbursed the telecom $1.30 per minute for every call on this system for a total nearing $16 million.
AT&T spokesman Marty Richter said the company has followed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules for providing these services for disabled customers and for seeking reimbursement for those services. The Justice Department alleged that up to 95 percent of such calls handled by AT&T since November 2009 have been made by fraudulent users, many of those calls were placed by Nigerian users, reports Pete Yost of the Associated Press (AP).
The FCC wouldn´t reimburse that money if the calls were made by people outside of the US 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.
The legal action was brought about by a “private whistleblower” lawsuit filed in 2010 in federal court by Constance Lyttle, a former AT&T communications assistant in one of the company´s call centers who made the original allegations about the improper billings.
If the government is able to recover money as a result of the lawsuit, Lyttle would receive a portion of it.
Marty Richter, a spokesman for AT&T told Ars Technica: “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 e-mail account, but FCC rules require that we complete all calls by customers who identify themselves as disabled.”