In a widespread scheme one assistant Attorney General described as "outrageous and insidious," 26 people from seven companies in eight states were indicted Thursday for stealing more than $50 million from a government fund that provides video interpreters that translate sign language for the deaf and hearing impaired outside their world. The service, overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), allows more than 30 million hearing disabled Americans to communicate with those who can hear.
"It's not going to be tolerated," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer told CBS News. "They were running up the money, and taxpayers were paying for services that weren't really occurring."
In a series of coast-to-coast raids, individuals from New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Maryland and California were arrested. They allegedly submitted thousands of "false and fraudulent" claims for Video Relay Service (VRS) calls that never involved hearing impaired people. Instead, the government charged, scammers placed millions of dollars of phony calls to pre-recorded radio programs, 800 numbers or podcasts - never translating anything but billing the FCC's fund nearly $400 an hour for every hour the employee was on the phone.
"The fraud issue is something we're going to have to deal with," prominent disabled rights attorney Jeff Rosen told CBS News."But we can't allow that to diminish the access that deaf people have."
Begun back in 1993, in recent years VRS calls have skyrocketed - rising from about 100,000 minutes per month in 2004 to nearly 9 million minutes per month in 2009. Overall, the industry is expected to generate nearly $800 million in revenue this year alone.