Justice Department Sues AT&T for Allegedly Improperly Billing the FCC

By Ed Silverstein March 22, 2012

The U.S. Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against AT&T for improperly billing the FCC in calls related to a service provided to the hard-of-hearing.

The lawsuit stems from AT&T’s Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. IP Relay lets hearing-impaired callers place telephone calls to hearing persons by typing messages over the Internet, via communications assistants (CAs) used by an IP Relay provider.

The Justice Department claims AT&T violated the False Claims Act by requesting money for IP Relay calls from international callers who were ineligible for the service and sought to use it for fraudulent purposes.  

In addition, AT&T used a registration system that did not verify whether the user was located in the United States, according to the Justice Department.

AT&T improperly billed the TRS Fund for reimbursement of these calls and received millions of dollars from the government, the Justice Department adds.

“Federal funding for Telecommunications Relay Services is intended to help the hearing- and speech-impaired in the United States,” Stuart F. Delery, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice, said in a departmental statement. “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,” David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, added in a statement. “Those who misuse funds intended to benefit the hearing- and speech-impaired must be held accountable.”

Constance Lyttle, a former communications assistant who worked in one of AT&T’s IP Relay call centers, was the source of the allegation in a lawsuit, and could receive some of the award if the case is successful, the Justice Department adds.

The federal government reimbursed AT&T at a rate of $1.30 a minute for the calls, according to a story from The Associated Press.

AT&T spokesman Marty Richter said the company followed FCC rules when providing “these services for disabled customers and for seeking reimbursement for those services,” The AP said.

The Justice Department claims up to 95 percent of the relevant calls handled by AT&T since November 2009 were made by fraudulent users, The AP adds. Many of the calls were made by Nigerian users, The AP said.

"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," Richter was quoted by The AP.

This is far from the first lawsuit against AT&T by the Justice Department. Last year, it filed a civil antitrust lawsuit to block AT&T’s proposed acquisition of the T-Mobile USA, according to TechZone360. The case led to AT&T dropping the planned deal.

Edited by Jamie Epstein

TechZone360 Contributor

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