The US Department of Justice has opened up an investigation into AT&T because the carrier has not followed federal regulations about the use of its IP Relay call service. The service is designed with the explicit and exclusive purpose of helping deaf or hard-of-hearing users in the US. The way the system works is that an AT&T operator acts as a liasion between a deaf person and the business or person he or she is trying to reach.
It’s a nice deal for AT&T, because the Federal Communications Commission reimburses the carrier $1.30 for every minute of every call they provide with this service. It’s a taxpayer-funded endeavor to help those with disabilities. This system has been in place for a long time, but before there was a Web-based option, deaf customers needed to have a special phone terminal. Now, anyone can log into the IP Replay site and pretend to be hard of hearing. It also means people outside the US can log in to the service.
That’s why, in 2009, the FCC amended its policy so that AT&T would only be reimbursed for legitimate calls – those that originated in the US from a deaf or hard-of-hearing person. Other calls are not eligible. Nevertheless, AT&T has apparently still been submitting reimbursement requests for millions of dollars from calls that originated overseas. In fact, get this – 95% of AT&T’s total IP Replay call volume came from people outside of the US. Now the Department of Justice is asking some tough questions.
“Federal funding for Telecommunications Relay Services is intended to help the hearing- and speech-impaired in the United States. We will pursue those who seek to gain by knowingly allowing others to abuse this program,” said Department of Justice Acting Assistant Attorny General Stuart Delery in a statement. AT&T has responded by saying it cannot verify everyone’s identity, and can’t be expected to know whether or not someone is using the service fraudulently. Of course, until now it hasn’t really had any incentive to do so.