RIVERBANK — Scammers from countries such as Nigeria and the United Kingdom have been using a taxpayer-funded telephone relay service for the deaf to target victims in the United States, current and former employees said.
About 700 people are employed at a call center in Riverbank that provides phone translations, called relay services, for the deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired. Users can access the free service using the Internet. The service is funded by a surcharge of about 10 to 15 cents a month on all phone bills and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.
The new owner of the Riverbank operation, New Jersey-based GoAmerica Inc., found that a number of the center's calls were originating from outside the United States. Because the service is for domestic use only, the company said, it blocked the international calls.
That triggered a dramatic drop in calls and prompted GoAmerica to announce Monday that it would slash its Riverbank staff.
Several employees said Tuesday that those international calls mostly originated from Nigeria and were being used to defraud small-business owners and individuals.
Scammers used the Internet relay service as if they were deaf people, then ordered products from businesses using stolen credit cards or tried to arrange financial transactions from individuals.
There are no regulations that require a person using the service to prove that he or she has a disability. Also, according to federal regulations, operators are not allowed to interfere with conversations.
"We all just kind of feel we weren't working for Verizon or Stellar Nordia (GoAmerica's subcontractor), we were working for Nigeria fraud. Now that all those calls are blocked, we're getting real calls, which is good, but now we've lost our jobs," said an employee who has worked at the center for a year, but declined to give his name.
During an average day, he took about 80 or 90 calls. Only three or four of those calls were from legitimately deaf or hard-of- hearing people, he said, with the rest fraudulent or obscene calls.
'Instant' decline in calls
GoAmerica blocked the international calls Thursday, and there was an "instant" difference, he said. Most employees were sent home because there weren't enough calls, and layoffs were announced Monday.
GoAmerica hasn't released a figure for the number of people who will be laid off. However, employees said they were told in meetings that only 150 operators out of 700 will remain on the job. The cuts will be based on seniority, and workers are being offered severance packages with six weeks of pay, employees said.
GoAmerica spokesman Thomas Rozycki said the company blocked all international calls, not just those originating from Nigeria or any other country.
"The nature (of the calls) is unimportant. ... The service is supposed to service domestic traffic," he said. "It is incumbent on the operator to make sure the right network was going on."
The company will keep all California-based relay calls in Riverbank, he said. In response to claims that the company will outsource all Internet-based relay calls to centers in the Philippines and Canada, Rozycki said: "There may be some percentage over time that move, but we have not made formal decisions."
Employees said the fraudulent calls had been a problem at the Riverbank center, and other relay call centers throughout the nation, for several years since the Internet-based relay service was introduced as a communication tool for the deaf.
Turlock resident Tyler Stevens worked at the Riverbank center from 2002 to 2004, when it was owned by MCI but operated by subcontractor GC Services. MCI had its staff take over in 2003. GoAmerica bought the division from Verizon last month.
"The more I think about it, the more I realize how convoluted the whole thing was," said Stevens, 24, a student at Modesto Junior College. "Not only was this supplemented by the government, but people's credit was getting ruined. The deaf community was getting shortchanged because their operators were doing these calls."
Scammers used the service to hide their accents or locations by using a relay operator, he said, and to fool unsuspecting business owners who thought they were dealing with a deaf person.
Several Web sites and forum boards are dedicated to the problem, and include stories of scammers using Internet relay services to order everything from gold chains and tobacco rolling papers to laptops and puppies. One Web site, www.stoprelayabuse.com, asks people to lobby the FCC so that only deaf people with an access code can use relay sites.
Stevens said operators weren't allowed to disconnect from the calls or interfere in conversations because of FCC guidelines. He said he was fired in 2004 after he decided to hang up on fraudulent calls.
Officials from the FCC did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.
MCI merged with Verizon in 2005. Verizon spokesman Peter Lucht said Tuesday that the Riverbank center was "appropriately staffed and operated" while Verizon owned it. "GoAmerica owns the business, and it is up to GoAmerica to operate it as it feels best," Lucht said.
Good news, bad news
Barbara Dowler has worked at the Riverbank call center for two years and said she is most concerned about finding a new job. Working as an operator paid a starting wage of $10 an hour and included two weeks' paid vacation, sick time, health insurance and other benefits.
About half of the people working at the center are college students or other young people who took advantage of the flexible schedule allowed in a 24-hour call center, she said. The remainder largely are people who used the job to support their families, including Dowler, whose children were on her health insurance policy.
"At first, they said 'Good news, we got rid of fraud!' " Dowler said. But then GoAmerica notified employees a few days later that layoffs were imminent, which she said was a "horrible thing to go through."
"I'll probably be laid off, so I'm already looking for a new job," Dowler said.
Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 238-4574.