WASHINGTON — For Steve Walker and his wife, Krista, the advent of an Internet-based telephone system for the deaf was a godsend.
"It's allowed me to be more connected to my family at any time, day or night, anywhere," says Steve, who is deaf. "So it's been tremendous. It's been a blessing for me."
It's a system called IP Relay, and it allows Steve to go to one of a number of free Internet sites to type in a phone number and message. In real time, an operator reads the exact message to the person on the other end. The operator then types back the reply. He can also use his BlackBerry to make the same type of call.
About 22 million calls are expected to be placed this way this year, at a cost of $92.5 million. The IP Relay system is funded by little-noticed charges on our monthly phone bills, charges described in terms like "Disability Access Fee" or "Carrier Cost Recovery Fee."
But an NBC News investigation shows that this well-meaning service may now be helping the criminal community more than the deaf community because of serious flaws in the relay system.
For instance, operators are required to repeat any message — no matter how vile or obscene.
A few samples of actual calls:
More significant, former AT&T and MCI operators Cathy Audia and Sheila Satterwhite say the system is being exploited by thieves.
"Eighty-five to 90 percent" of the calls Audia says she handled were scams. "The majority of them, very rarely did we get an actually hearing-impaired call," she says.
They say overseas thieves use stolen credit cards and the voices of relay operators to run up large orders from unsuspecting U.S. merchants who may let their guard down because they think they're helping a deaf person.
How much money do they think they helped steal from American businesses?
"Multi-millions," says Audia, "multi-millions."
"I felt like a criminal every day I left work," adds Satterwhite.
By law, every call has to be put through, no matter what the content is.
What if they get a call where someone's saying they're going to plant a dirty bomb in New York City? What can an operator do?
"Nothing," says Satterwhite. "Technically, we're not supposed to do anything except relay the call through."
Even if lives at are stake?
"Absolutely," she says.
"One time they said, 'Well, if you don't do what I told you to do, I'm going to come and kill your children,'" recalls Audia.
And she relayed that.
"To warn the FBI or the government or the police would be breaking the law," Audia adds.
And the U.S. government knows all about it. Records obtained by NBC News under the Freedom of Information Act document private meetings in Washington between representatives of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) and the IP Relay companies that profit from the calls. The topic of those meetings was the ongoing abuse of the IP Relay system.
One internal phone company document filed with the FCC discusses operators’ working overtime to handle "a high volume of fraud calls."
Another internal phone company memo obtained separately by NBC is from an IP Relay call center operations director, who acknowledges operators' protests about being forced to make fraud calls.
"I have heard your complaints about having to handle the calls knowing they are ripping off hard working Americans. And I have listened to the calls. I have heard your frustration with not being able to tell someone ... anyone!" writes the director.
But he goes on to warn operators about publicly discussing the issue.
"Please do not risk your jobs and your own integrity. The scammers would be stealing more than just goods or money," he writes.
Not only are IP Relay operators prohibited from discussing the calls, but the relay companies themselves are also prohibited from keeping any records that identify callers or the content of conversations. The laws are intended to ensure the privacy of deaf people and comply with the the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The criminals using IP Relay are enjoying those same protections, operators say, and like not paying for expensive overseas calls.
The FCC declined NBC's request for an interview but said in a statement that it is "concerned about these reports," is reviewing the matter and "will make any necessary rule changes."