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Abusing IP Relay
Tax-funded pranks, scams, and freeloading
by Karl Bode 01:08PM Thursday Sep 16 2004
(Updated) IP Relay services are intended to allow the hearing impaired the ability to communicate with phone users via the Internet. Unfortunately, kids are abusing the services, Nigerian scammers are using it as a new avenue of attack on the disabled, freeloaders are freeloading - and you're footing part of the bill.

Such services at first utilized their own device, dubbed a TTY; also known as a TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf). Eventually William McClelland, Senior Engineer for MCI, and Tom McLaughlin, President of NXi Communications, developed the idea of allowing the disabled to make calls via the internet via IP-Relay, since a web connection was often easier to find than a TTY.

The idea was immensely successful, and the resulting companies that offer it continue to evolve the idea, now even offering the service via IM clients like AOL's Instant Messenger or via mobile devices. In 2001, the Federal Communications Commission released an order that allowed providers to be reimbursed for calls made through IP-Relay.

Unfortunately the technology has been ripe with abuse, from kids forcing operators to verbalize sexually graphic comments for amusement, to Nigerian scammers using the technology to con the disabled. As this braggart notes, regular users are also freeloading on the service.

Companies who offer the service (IPRelay (MCI), Sprint, and AT&T) aren't working too hard to prevent the abuse or authorize users. Why? As this user notes in our forums, the companies are being paid close to $1.50 per minute by the FCC (and you) for carrying the traffic. Do the exponential math, and most of these companies stand to make millions a year via their "good will".

Over the past year, a high volume of operators in the past year have spoken out about the volume of prank calls and scams they've been forced to process. According to one source quoted by a Baltimore paper earlier this year, nearly 90% of the traffic on IP-Relay networks is scammers using stolen credit cards to anonymously mail-order electronics in bulk.

The result has been an increase in companies refusing calls from IP-Relay services, and busy operators unable to take the calls of users who actually need the service. While the FCC, operators, and the companies are all aware of the problem, so far the companies involved claim they're waiting for the FCC's "leadership" on the issue before they'll act.

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