Federal Investigation (ongoing)
Before I get all dreamy-eyed about the potential for the Deaf community and sign language interpreters to make a significant contribution to global linguistic equality and transnational social justice (see yesterday’s entry), we have some business to clean up.
Nothing written here should be taken as legal advice. I am not a lawyer – not even a legal interpreter. What I write is only my attempt to make sense of this messy situation for myself.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Officer Jay Keithley told a room crammed full of interpreters, “you don’t want to be on the wrong side of the issue.” It was the second information meeting he held during the conference of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. The room was inadequate for the 100 or so interested interpreters. Squeezing the chairs together, lining the walls, and sitting on all available floor space still left people overflowing into the hallway. Some were repeats, they had attended the first session (two days previous) and returned again, hoping for more clarity concerning liability and the definition of fraudulent behavior.
“This is huge,” one interpreter explained,
“We want this cleaned up way more than you do.”
My motivation to attend was academic curiosity about criminal behavior in telecommunications (I am earning a phd in Communication); I was not prepared for the size of the crowd nor its unmasked anxiety. The sense I received from the palpable concern of interpreters who do work for a VRS company is that there seems to be a significant grey area of calls being made with questionable communicative content.
The Charges: Public Corruption & Fraud (someone got greedy)
The apparently violated law is a general conspiracy law, Conspiracy to Defraud the United States (Title 18, United States Code, Section 371), in which the accused “…unlawfully, knowingly, and intentionally combined and conspired with others to defraud the Federal Communications Commission and its agent, the National Exchange Carrier Association” (p. 2, Affidavit and Arrest Warrant). The National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA) receives regulatory fees from telecommunications companies’ entire customer base, and pays back (technically, “reimburses”) the VRS sub-division or subcontractor or independent provider based on minutes-per-month of (what they call, sic) “online video translation.”
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Federal Communications Commission (together, the FCC-OIG) noticed “a dramatic increase in the reimbursements” over the past four years. The increase in minutes used in January 2005 (1.4 million) to January 2009 (8.1 million) is 578%. (Check my math; this is an incredible percentage.) The difference in dollars is staggering: from $10.8 million (January 2005) to $51.2 million (January 2009) – $40.4 million dollars. Yep, if I had been anywhere near anything this big and illegal I would be quaking in my shoes too. What isn’t known (or at least, what is not shared in the legal documents), is how much of the increase is legitimate due to the Deaf community’s learning curve with the technology:
- becoming comfortable with using it,
- expanding the circle of family, friends, and work-related calls, and
- realizing its capabilities in making general content from the internet accessible.
Personally, I would not be inclined to underestimate how eager the Deaf community is to access the wide world of information available so suddenly and – finally! – easily.
The Crime: generating minutes without providing interpretation – from China!?!
Nested down through two layers of companies and three contracts, a particular VRS provider in Texas, Mascom, “processed a large number of VRS calls from callers who specifically requested that no translation [sic] be done, or to numbers that required no translation [sic]” (p. 6, Affidavit and Arrest Warrant). The internal jargon used by VRS interpreters, as reported in the Affidavit and Arrest Warrant to describe “calls with no apparent legitimate purpose” is ‘run calls’ or callers’ ‘running calls'” (p. 6). Examples given include
- calls to lengthy podcasts that are not interpreted,
- calls to numbers where the caller is “put…on interminable hold,”
- calls when both the caller and the interpreter use what is called a “privacy screen” to block the incoming view (so neither can see the other and interpretation is impossible), and
- VRS interpreters calling themselves.
Interesting, the American Deaf community does not seem to be the main culprit (at least, not in this first big case). Records show that “there are hundreds of hours of billed calls that originate with Chinese IP addresses” (p. 6). (An IP address identifies the specific computer used by the caller making the call.) This particular Affidavit and Arrest Warrant approximates that 75% of the total 605,000 minutes billed by (and apparently paid to) the owner of the Texas company (Mascom), Kim E. Hawkins, were run calls. That’s 453,750 minutes of the 6.7 million minute increase from 2005-2009: a mere drop in the bucket.
The information quoted in this blogpost is specific to the Texas case; a similar case has been discovered in Florida. Are there other run call scams going on out there? That is the reason why (in my opinion) the FCC made a showing at the RID convention: to rattle the cage and shake them loose. Officer Keithley explained how unusual it is for such an informational meeting to occur during an ongoing investigation; most questions of substance he had to duck or avoid because they related too closely to the details of the existing and ongoing investigation.
Coming Clean versus Hoping to Not Be Noticed?
To date, I have not worked for a Video Relay Service provider of interpretation services between spoken and signed languages. To a certain extent, my ignorance of the conditions of work and types of calls puts me in a similar ‘outsider’ position as the investigating officers from the FBI and FCC. I can understand their reluctance to specify which types of calls are fraudulent and which are legitimate – because who knows how creative people can be when they are deeply familiar with a system and want to take advantage of it. Still, there seems to me to be a very basic boundary: either your hands are up (interpreting), or your hands are idle. If you’ve been in situations that seem like running calls, then part of what needs to occur is a serious study and definition of what is a reasonable wait time (god only knows how long it can take to navigate automated menus) and what are expected/common conditions in which waiting makes sense (blowing one’s nose, for instance, or going to refill a cup of tea, or taking another call). Some parity needs to be established between the freedoms non-deaf speaking people have for putting each other on hold (in monolingual situations) and the freedom of Deaf signing people to adhere to common norms (in multilingual situations).
The ethics of confidentiality, specifically when/where & with whom the lines are drawn, is another arena opened up for clarification by such overt criminal behavior. The immediate suggestion from Officer Keithley is
“if you see this kind of conduct, report it to your managers, and report to the FCC’s Office of Inspector General at email@example.com” or to firstname.lastname@example.org himself.
They will protect your anonymity to the extent possible within “law enforcement purposes.” This guarantee is a bit plastic (for instance, you may be identified as a potential witness) but the interpreters who cooperated in the Texas investigation into Mascom are not named in the Affidavit or Arrest Warrant. Their anonymity appears to be protected to the extent that they serve “as a source of information for law enforcement officials” and (presumedly, although this was not stated) are innocent of “knowingly and intentionally” breaking the law. If you were stupid and got caught up in this before you realized how wrong it is, well, its time for another roll of the dice.
FCC’s Informational Meeting, Memo posted to Ed’s Telecom Alert (with comments)
Federal Communications Commission, Wikipedia
TRS (Telecommunications Relay Service, including VRS), Disability Rights, Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau, FCC
Conspiracy to Defraud the United States, Title 18, United States Code, Section 371. Criminal Resource Manual
Westerhaus, Patrick A. June 24, 2009. Case 1:09-mj-00404-AWA, Affidavit in Support of a Criminal Complaint and Arrest Warrant Against Kim E. Hawkins, text available at Ed’s Telecom Alerts, FBI Warrants and Warning
Reply Comments to Affidavit vs Kim E Hawkins, D’Aurio and Kiser, STI Prepaid LLC
TRS Fund, National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA)
Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Federal Communications Commission (together, the FCC-OIG)
RID’s Statement regarding VRS industry investigation (RIDStatement(1).pdfdownloadable from RID’s website)
Take it easy, folks, Ed’s Telecom Alerts