The Justice Department is accusing AT&T of skimming a little off the top every time a Nigerian scammer uses a phone service designed for deaf people called IP Relay. Which is a lot. The practice apparently netted AT&T as much as $16 million.
Nigerian scam artists use IP Relay—the service that reads text-based messages back to the recipient—as an uninflected mouthpiece to use stolen credit card numbers or run other cons.
AT&T’s part in this has to do with the $1.30 per minute the FCC reimburses telephone providers for dealing with IP Relay calls. But that’s intended for for callers with actual hearing disabilities from within the United States. Obviously, that was hard to track. So in 2008, the FCC made phone companies verify names and addresses. And according to the lawsuit the Justice Department brought against AT&T, 95 percent of AT&T’s IP Relay calls after 2009 were from international sources.
The suit was brought under the federal False Claims Act and was based on tips from an employee in an AT&T call center.
AT&T did not comment on the suit, but said it followed the FCC’s rules for providing the service and seeking reimbursement.
The program at issue is a little-known text-based communications service called IP Relay that allows the hearing-impaired to place telephone calls by typing messages over the Internet. Those messages are then read aloud to parties on the other end of the line by call-center employees at companies like AT&T, which are then reimbursed by the FCC.
The government alleges that scammers operating out of Nigeria used the service to defraud U.S. merchants by ordering goods with stolen credit cards and counterfeit checks. In essence, the government alleges, AT&T’s operators became mouthpieces for the scam artists.
The complaint used an example of a scammer pretending to be a foreign buyer, who placed a large order with a stolen credit card. Typing text read aloud by the operator, the scammer would then ask the merchant to wire money for transporting the goods.