US DOJ sues AT&T for improper IP Relay billing, alleges millions in false claims to FCC

Zach Honig
Z. Honig|03.22.12

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US DOJ sues AT&T for improper IP Relay billing, alleges millions in false claims to FCC
AT&T has violated the United States False Claims Act to the tune of "millions of dollars," according to a Department of Justice lawsuit filed this week. The DOJ alleges that the carrier intentionally neglected to authenticate users of the IP Relay service -- a tool utilized by hearing-impaired persons to type messages that communications assistants then read to callers. The service is also abused by individuals overseas to defraud U.S. businesses (think infamous Nigerian scams), which prompted the FCC to establish a law requiring telecom providers, including AT&T, to confirm the identity of registered users, which it apparently failed to do. This resulted in thousands of fraudulent users, representing some 95 percent of all calls, which AT&T received FCC payments for to the tune of $1.30 per minute. An AT&T spokesman was somewhat dismissive when speaking to the Associated Press, saying "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." But if the allegations are proven, there could be some pretty serious repercussions for Big Blue. DOJ PR is just past the break.
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United States Files Lawsuit Against AT&T in Telecommunications Relay Services Fraud Case

Government Alleges AT&T Improperly Billed the FCC for Reimbursement

The United States has filed a complaint against AT&T Corporation under the False Claims Act for conduct related to its provision of Internet Protocol (IP) Relay services, the Justice Department announced today. AT&T is a global conglomerate that provides a wide variety of telecommunications services, including Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

IP Relay is a text-based communications service designed to allow hearing-impaired individuals to place telephone calls to hearing persons by typing messages over the Internet that are relayed by communications assistants (CAs) employed by an IP Relay provider. IP Relay is funded by fees assessed by telecommunications providers to telephone customers, and is provided at no cost to IP Relay users. The FCC, through the TRS Fund, reimburses IP Relay providers at a rate of approximately $1.30 per minute. In an effort to reduce the abuse of IP Relay by foreign scammers using the system to defraud American merchants with stolen credit cards and by other means, the FCC in 2009 required providers to verify the accuracy of each registered user's name and mailing address.

The United States alleges that AT&T violated the False Claims Act by facilitating and seeking federal payment for IP Relay calls by international callers who were ineligible for the service and sought to use it for fraudulent purposes. The complaint alleges that, out of fears that fraudulent call volume would drop after the registration deadline, AT&T knowingly adopted a non-compliant registration system that did not verify whether the user was located within the United States. The complaint further contends that AT&T continued to employ this system even with the knowledge that it facilitated use of IP Relay by fraudulent foreign callers, which accounted for up to 95 percent of AT&T's call volume. The government's complaint alleges that AT&T improperly billed the TRS Fund for reimbursement of these calls and received millions of dollars in federal payments as a result.

"Federal funding for Telecommunications Relay Services is intended to help the hearing- and speech-impaired in the United States," said Stuart F. Delery, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice. "We will pursue those who seek to gain by knowingly allowing others to abuse this program."

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

The claims in the United States' complaint are allegations only; there has been no determination of liability.

The United States' complaint was filed in a lawsuit originally brought under the qui tam, or whistleblower, provisions of the False Claims Act by Constance Lyttle, a former CA who worked in one of AT&T's IP Relay call centers. Under the act's qui tam provisions, a private citizen, known as a "relator," can sue for fraud on behalf of the United States, which has the option of taking over the case. If the lawsuit is successful, the relator is entitled to a share of any recovery. The case is U.S. ex rel. Lyttle v. AT&T Corp., No. 2:10-cv-1376 (W.D. Pa.).
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