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).
May 5, 2006; 11:28 AM ET
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