AT&T sued after charging the FCC for Nigerian scam calls

On Thursday, the Department of Justice said that they have filed a lawsuit against AT&T for allowing their IP Relay service, which is aimed at helping the speech and hearing impaired, to become a haven for Nigerian scammers.

IP Relay, the DOJ explained in court documents, is a text-based communications service designed to allow hearing and speech impaired individuals to place telephone calls to hearing persons by typing messages over the Internet, which are then relayed by communications assistants (CAs) employed by an IP Relay provider. AT&T, as such a relay provider, would then bill the government about $1.30 per minute for the calls.

It’s alleged that AT&T, despite the mandate that the service be restricted to U.S. customers only, knew that the service was being abused by Nigerian scammers and other criminals overseas, but allowed the calls to take place because they accounted for 95% of AT&T’s IP Relay call volume.

“Taxpayers must not bear the cost of abuses of the Telecommunications Relay system. Those who misuse funds intended to benefit the hearing- and speech-impaired must be held accountable,” said David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

According to Bloomberg, AT&T billed the government $16 million for the calls, to which the government is asking three times that amount in damages. The DOJ learned of AT&T alleged actions after a call center employee filed a whistle-blower lawsuit in Pittsburgh. The government intervened from that point.

In a statement AT&T spokesperson Marty Richter said that the telecom giant followed the rules for IP Relay usage, and is looking for the expected reimbursement.

“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 email account, but FCC rules require that we complete all calls by customers who identify themselves as disabled.”

The case is U.S. ex rel. Lyttle v. AT&T Corp., No. 2:10-cv-1376 (W.D. Pa.).

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