The Capital Times
When Sheila Satterwhite got a job relaying phone conversations between deaf and hearing people, she thought she'd be providing a useful public service.
Instead, she estimates she spent up to 70 percent of her workday being a "human telephone wire" between overseas scammers and their victims, often business owners or unsuspecting people trying to find a date.
Meanwhile, legitimate callers waited in queues while those misusing the system tied up operators' time, she says. Due to strict confidentiality contracts, operators cannot disconnect or report the content of any calls.
After about 10 months working at a Verizon relay center in Madison, Satterwhite quit last April. Now she advocates for victims via Web forums.
"I couldn't handle being there because the fraud was so rampant that my conscience was getting the better of me," she says.
The federally regulated system is intended to help deaf and hearing people make phone calls to each other with nothing more complex than Internet access. There are several different modes of telephone relay services for deaf people, but the one that operators say has by far the most abuse is Internet Protocol, or IP Relay, a technology that requires no registration or special equipment, just a computer with an Internet connection.
Ideally, a deaf or hard-of-hearing person goes to a Web site, such as IP-Relay.com
, clicks on an icon and connects via the Internet to an operator who speaks verbatim what the deaf person types and in turn types what the hearing person says.
But according to many current and former relay operators in Madison and nationwide, scammers - most apparently from outside the United States - are posing as deaf and taking advantage of the service to bait people and businesses for money. The abuse costs Americans and frustrates deaf callers by corrupting a service created to help them.
"We as operators are stuck in the middle," says Satterwhite. "It's a genuine moral and ethical vs. legal dilemma: Do we do what is right and warn the victims or do we just do our job according to mandates?"
Funding the service:
Relay service providers are compensated at $1.293 per minute for IP Relay out of a fund established by the Federal Communications Commission in 1993.
Providers of telecommunications services must contribute to the fund annually based on their historical interstate revenues. The providers defray these costs by passing them on to the consumer, usually in such fees on a telephone bill as a "Regulatory Cost Recovery Fee." This fund paid more than $105 million to IP Relay providers last year, according to federal records.
Providing a confidential and free internet-based relay system is meant to create an equal communicating field for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. It allows them to make phone calls without investing in a TTY ("teletypewriter") phone, which typically costs between $250 and $600.
"It enables deaf folks to have the same telephone services that hearing people have," says Satterwhite. She points out that hearing people have the ability to pick up a phone and call anyone they wish - even to haggle a drug deal, order a call girl or plot a murder - and be reasonably assured that their conversation is private.
IP Relay is "definitely a breeding medium for the scammers because it is almost impossible to determine where the IP address is based," says Jim Powell, president of Wisconsin Telecommunicators Inc., a group that advocates equal access to communication for the deaf.
The typical scammer might cruise online classified ads or the yellow pages for businesses and individuals to defraud, according to operators. They have ordered huge quantities of merchandise, often showing absolutely no interest in the product itself.
"If the business didn't have what they were asking for, they'd say, 'OK, what else do you have?' " says former operator Tim Kidd.
The minute a person says they want "50,000 wedding dresses shipped to Nigeria," former operator P. Ripp says she knew she was relaying for a scammer.
Because the American relay operator is doing all the speaking for the scammer, businesses are sympathetic when they might otherwise be leery of foreign accents, say operators.
Scammers also go on dating Web sites to pick up long-distance boyfriends and girlfriends and con their "sweetheart" into sending them money.
"In the love scams, they say 'my sweetie,' 'my love' 40 times in a second. It's always, 'My love, have you sent the money, my love?" says Kristen Dearth, a former Verizon operator.
"It's amazing the different types of people who become victims. It doesn't matter how financially well off or not they are. They've never even heard of IP Relay. They think it's a deaf person calling them," Satterwhite says.
Operators vary in their estimates of scamming prevalence, but most agree that con artists chew up roughly a third to half of their workload, at times even more. Because of confidentiality rules set down by the FCC, relay companies say they can't monitor or estimate the number of abuse calls.
"If we did just legit calls, our office would be closed. The managers tell me, 'if it weren't for those calls, you wouldn't have a paycheck,' " says one operator in New Castle, Pa., who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job. She has worked at an AT&T relay center for more than a decade and is putting her children through college on her wages.
"I feel like a hypocrite doing it. There's got to be a way to block these calls," she says.
Beating the scam:
Although operators are divided on how they think the IP Relay system can be scam-proofed, one national provider, Hamilton Relay, believes it has found a way.
Hamilton Vice President Dixie Ziegler says the company has had "great success" blocking the IP addresses of callers whose usage "could indicate fraudulent use. Our suspicions are based on call patterns, not call content. It's never been a huge issue and we have been successful in eliminating the little bit we did have."
Ashley Fiske, relay operator at the Hamilton center in Madison, agrees that the blocking system has been working. "Nowadays we only get about one (scam call) once in a while," Fiske says.
Even so, she says that about half the calls she relays are abusive calls from hearing people who "use relay to call their friends and have us say stupid things just so they can get a kick out of" it.
Verizon, another national relay provider, has also "taken great steps to reduce improper use of relay services," says Ellen Yu, a national spokeswoman for the company. "We monitor by call intervals and the sequence number of calls, by IP address and geographic location."
Using this data, she says Verizon blocks suspicious IP addresses. But besides this tactic, their hands are tied by federal law.
In a 12-page letter submitted last July to the FCC, Verizon representatives laid out their concerns about abuse of the IP relay system and how they believe federal laws should be changed.
"Under the current law, our operators are prohibited from interrupting, intercepting, interpreting or discussing the communication. We feel that we're constricted by the law right now," says Wisconsin's Verizon spokeswoman Lou Ann Novak.
Verizon is also concerned about caller harassment of operators, "which effectively abolishes the (operator's) role as a transparent conduit," according to the company's letter to the FCC.
Kristen Dearth worked for nine months last year at the Madison Verizon relay center, where she says managers did block some IP addresses, but not enough.
She estimates that 45 percent of the calls came from legitimate users. At night she says fraudulent calls increased to about four in five.
Tim Kidd, another operator who worked at Verizon around the same time, gives a lower estimate of scamming, one in five, but he says "it varied widely from day to day. The fraud calls were really frustrating. The businesses and individuals would assume that this whole relay thing was a scam - that we were the scam artists - and it's not. It's a very legitimate service."
The FCC issued a call last May requesting suggestions on how to prevent the "misuse" of Internet-based relay telecommunications. Since then, it has received more than 2,400 responses on its Web site.
FCC spokeswoman Rosemary Kimball says the commission will issue an order when all the comments come in, but she doesn't know when that will be.
Satterwhite says that she doesn't see any other solution to the scamming problem except to limit IP relay to registered users only. But others think this would defeat the purpose of providing open and private service to deaf people.
"Of course it would be wonderful if they had to register, but I don't think you can implement that without discriminating," says P. Ripp, a college student in Madison who worked at MCI (since bought out by Verizon).
Linda Russell, who works with deaf people at a state agency and is deaf herself, is also "not convinced" that requiring registration is the answer to squeezing scam artists out of the IP Relay system.
"My experience is that when a perceived problem is raised and investigated, especially one using tax dollars, there is a quick and swift reaction to close the program or severely restrict it, rather than do a thorough assessment of how to effectively overcome the problem," Russell says.
Relay will be needed now more than ever as people in the baby boom generation get older and lose their hearing, says Glen Loyd, public information officer for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
"You have criminals who are stealing from people and putting a valuable service in jeopardy," he says. "These criminals are very sophisticated and they live in a country where our laws don't work."
Loyd says relay operators have spoken with him about the fraud. Some have told him they rat out scammers to their victims, even though this goes against confidentiality agreements.
"I know that some of the operators are very good at trying to give hints. I admire those operators very much," Loyd says.
Satterwhite is also aware of this phenomenon. "Many, many operators will take down phone numbers and warn the victims on their own time after their shift is over. Sometimes, it's the only way they can do the job," she says.
Dearth wishes there were "some kind of service where people could openly talk about this. It was a really good job in terms of money and hours, but you get sick of cheating people."
HOW TO SPOT A SCAMMER
• Be suspicious if: A caller orders large quantities of merchandise.
A caller is impatient and wants products shipped immediately, especially to an international location.
A caller uses multiple credit card numbers or wants to split an order between several credit cards. Businesses should always ask for the CVV (Card Verification Value) code, located on the back of credit cards.
A caller wants to use a third party "shipping agent."
A caller shows little to no interest in the product being purchased.