AT&T bilked federal government on scam calls, lawsuit says
A former AT&T phone operator claims the telecommunications company bilked the federal government out of millions of dollars by knowingly allowing international criminals, mostly Nigerians, to scam Americans with phony credit card orders and wire transfers.
The federal lawsuit filed by Constance Lyttle, 54, of Mercer says company officials knew 95 percent of the time spent on calls made via IP relay, a service intended for people with hearing or speech disabilities, was being used by criminals wanting to disguise their location.
AT&T encouraged operators to keep the calls going as long as possible because the government reimburses companies by the minute for them, the lawsuit states.
"It's just so horrible that they knew that these were scams, and yet they forced their employees to put them through," said attorney Rebecca Lyttle, who is representing her sister in the lawsuit.
AT&T spokesman Marty Richter declined to comment. The company has not responded to the lawsuit in court.
The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center put out a notice in 2004 warning about a "dramatic increase in the number of complaints from online businesses" victimized by international criminals through the IP relay.
In 2009, it issued another alert notifying auto repair shops that they were being targeted by criminals using the relay service to charge shipping fees to a stolen credit card number and then directing the business to wire the money to the person "shipping" the car.
Constance Lyttle worked at AT&T's relay center in New Castle from 2002 until she was fired in 2010, the lawsuit states. Rebecca Lyttle said the company fired her sister because she voiced opposition to the policy regarding scam calls.
Constance Lyttle filed the lawsuit in 2010 under a law that allows private citizens to sue for fraud on behalf of the government. If successful, she could receive part of the damages awarded to the government.
The federal government plans to file its own complaint in the lawsuit, which was unsealed in December. The U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment.
The Justice Department filed a notice on Dec. 21 stating that it decided to partly intervene in the case, which means it will pursue some of the allegations Lyttle has made against AT&T while leaving her to pursue the other claims. The notice does not say which claims the government intends to pursue, but says the government will file its own complaint in the next 60 days.
Duquesne University law professor Michael Streib, an expert in federal civil law who is not involved in the case, said it won't be clear why the government is only partly intervening in the case until it files its complaint, but the simple answer is that "there might be some claims they're simply not interested in."
The government might want to go after the money it paid to AT&T or it possibly wants a say in how the law at the heart of the case gets interpreted, he said.
The Federal Communications Commission requires telecommunications companies to provide IP relay to people with hearing or speech disabilities. The caller uses computer software to communicate with an operator, who relays his or her messages over the phone to the person or company being called, as well as responses back to the caller.
The service is free for users. Companies are reimbursed from the Telecommunications Relay Services Fund, which is funded by a federal tax on their annual revenue.
The FCC website notes that companies that provide the service are not allowed to intervene in the phone calls. Both federal disability laws and telecommunications laws require that conversations made through the service be "functionally equivalent" to voice phone calls.
An FCC spokeswoman declined comment because of the lawsuit.
Federal regulations require that operators "relay all calls verbatim and generally prohibit (them) from intervening in any conversation," the FCC website states.
Lyttle said federal regulations, and AT&T's policy, allow operators to stop calls if they believe the caller is attempting to commit a crime.
The service has attracted criminals almost from its inception more than 10 years ago. The FCC started warning businesses in 2004 that scam artists were using the service to place fraudulent credit card orders and money transfers.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Police: Man kills co-worker, then himself at NYC Home Depot
- Some Catholics ruled out as jurors in Boston Marathon bombing case
- Santa Ana winds cut power to thousands in Southern California
- Lawmakers target gay nuptials as Supreme Court ruling nears
- Ramping up e-cigarette voltage may be more hazardous to health
- Arizona hospital tests brain tumor drugs by giving patients dose, then operating
- Obama to seek protection of wilderness designation for Alaska refuge
- W.Va. officials deal with late inspections, troubled tanks
- Snowstorm crawls up coast, hitting New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, parts of Pennsylvania
- Fort Hood shooter flew under radar, Army says
- Attorney general nominee Lynch draws glowing review before Senate confirmation hearing