Twenty-Six Indicted in Scheme to Defraud the Deaf

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Washington, DC—Twenty-six suspects in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Maryland have been indicted on charges of defrauding the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

In a unique investigation that required the help of 20 sign-language interpreters, federal agents uncovered the wide-ranging scheme, which involved the fraudulent use of a Video Relay Service (VRS) system, through which deaf or hard-of-hearing consumers could communicate with hearing people via a sign-language interpreter.

The system allows a deaf person to use a television or computer with a webcam and broadband Internet connection to contact a “communications assistant,” who then places a traditional telephone call to the hearing individual and relays the conversation back and forth between the two parties, using sign language with the VRS user and voice with the called party. The conversation typically flows faster and more easily than using a text-based system such as TTY (teletypewriter) or TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf).

According to an official with the Federal Communications Commission, the indicted suspects, who are owners and employees of seven VRS companies, allegedly falsely billed the government for calls that were purportedly assisting deaf individuals, but which in actuality were not. The government was charged $390 an hour for the service.

The FCC also said that the total amount billed for the Video Relay Service last year was $55 million. Although they are uncertain of the exact value of the fraudulent calls, they said it could be “tens of millions.”

The seven contractors who are allegedly defrauded the system account for approximately 15 percent of its total business.

Prosecutors have said that they will seek unspecified jail time in addition to forfeiture of the contractors’ business.

The FCC was assisted in the investigation by the FBI and the Postal Inspection Service. The cost of the Video Relay Service is funded through fees paid by telephone consumers.

Assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer, said in a statement, “The individuals charged in connection with today’s operation are alleged to have stolen tens of millions of dollars from an important government program that is intended to help deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans communicate with hearing persons.”

The companies named in the indictment are located in Rockville, Maryland; Phoenix, Arizona; Austin, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada; Miami Lakes, Florida; and Huntington Beach, California. One of the firms operates in both New York and New Jersey.

 

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