The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) set the dates for the adoption of industry regulations that address fraud, waste, and abuse within “video relay services” (VRS), which allows hearing impaired users to communicate in sign language via a video link.
On May 2, 2011, the FCC posted a Federal Register notice—“Structure and Practices of the Video Relay Service Program”—which mostly takes effect on June 1, 2001 (a section that prohibits communications assistants—who relay the calls—from working out of their homes takes effect Aug. 30, 2011).
“In this document, the commission adopts rules to address fraud, waste, and abuse in the Video Relay Service (VRS) industry,” the notice says. “These rules are necessary to combat reported and detected activity that has resulted in inappropriate payments to VRS providers from the Interstate TRS Fund (Fund). The intended impact of these rules is to minimize fraud in order to safeguard the sustainability of the VRS program,” it says.
The FCC “recognizes the valuable ways in which VRS fulfills the communication needs of persons who are deaf and hard of hearing,” the notice says. However, the program’s structure has made it vulnerable to fraud and abuse, “which have plagued the current program and threatened its long-term sustainability.”
In November 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted 26 people for allegedly manufacturing and billing the fund for illegitimate calls, and the vast majority of whom have either pleaded guilty or been convicted. In addition, the FCC continues to receive numerous allegations of abusive practices by VRS providers, resulting in criminal investigations. Those investigations have been the subject of semi-annual reports that the FCC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has submitted to Congress. The OIG reports on those investigations lists evidence of illicit VRS activities.
That list includes:
- Callers specifically requesting that the call not be relayed by the communications assistant (CA) to a third party
- Calls placed to numbers that do not require any relaying, for example a voice-to-voice call
- Calls initiated from international IP addresses by callers with little or no fluency in American sign language (ASL), where the connection is permitted to “run” (i.e., the line is simply left open without any relaying of the call occurring)
- Implementation of “double privacy screens” (i.e., where both users to the video leg of the call block their respective video displays, thus making communication impossible)
- VRS CAs calling themselves
- CAs connecting videophones/computers and letting them run with no parties participating in the call
- Callers disconnecting from one illegitimate call and immediately calling back to initiate another
- Callers admitting that they were paid to make TRS calls
To counter those, and other, “illicit VRS activities,” on Aug. 23, 2010, the FCC issues a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM)—VRS Call Practices NPRM—which seeks to reduce and ultimately eliminate fraud and abuse, and to improve the integrity and sustainability of the TRS Fund that pays for the program. The NPRM covered areas such as:
- The location of VRS call centers
- VRS CAs working from home
- Compensation for VRS CAs
- Procedures for the suspension of payment from the TRS Fund
- The permissibility of specific call practices
- Ways to detect and stop the billing of illegitimate calls
Because of the comments received on the NPRM, the FCC declined to adopt its tentative conclusion requiring all VRS call centers be located in the United States. The reasons the FCC did not adopt that proposal are, the commission is concerned about potential violations of international trade agreements, and that the commission can effectively control fraud and ensure compliance with the mandatory minimum standards at any center, regardless of its location.
However, the FCC will require information on the location of all current and future call centers, the notice says. Accordingly, the FCC amends its rules to require all VRS providers to submit a written statement twice a year (April 1 and Oct. 1) to the commission and the TRS Fund administrator containing the locations of all of their VRS call centers, including call centers located outside the United States, In addition to the street address of each call center, the Commission further directs that these statements contain:
- The number of individual CAs and CA managers employed at each call center
- The name and contact information (phone number and e-mail address) for the managers at each call center.
The FCC also amends its rules to require VRS providers to notify the commission and the TRS Fund administrator in writing at least 30 days prior to any change to their call centers’ locations, including the opening, closing, or relocation of any center.
In addition, because “an unsupervised home environment is more conducive to fraud than a supervised call center with on-site management,” the FCC prohibits CAs working from their homes.
For further details on the regulation, contact Diane Mason, FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Disability Rights Office, at (202) 418–7126 or e-mail Diane.Mason@fcc.gov.
For additional information concerning the regulation’s VRS’ information collection requirements, contact Cathy Williams, FCC, at (202) 418–2918, or via e-mail Cathy.Williams@fcc.gov.