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Relay telephone service, which is intended to assist deaf or speech-disabled individuals, is being abused by scam artists.
The scheme allegedly reached LaRue County last week when a local couple, Jacob Jones and Kaitey Sweep, avoided being victims of a “relay call” scammer who claimed to be interested in buying puppies through an online classified ad.
The relay service allows a person with a text telephone or Internet to connect with an operator who will dial the number for them and relay the text conversation to the hearing person. The operator then types back to the deaf person what the hearing person says. The service is provided free by telephone companies and supported by tax dollars.
According to scamorama.com and fakechecks.org, scammers – hundreds from West Africa alone – are using the service to order items with fake credit card numbers or target other consumers who have advertised items for sale.
The system allows the con artists to disguise their broken English.
Jones placed a classified ad with The LaRue County Herald News and other regional newspapers a couple of weeks ago. His grandmother had given the couple nine black Labrador puppies to sell and use the money in any way they chose. Asking $60 per pup seemed like a good way to raise money for their upcoming wedding.
A few days later, Jones received a relay call from “Bless Wade” who wanted to purchase two of Jones’ nine black Labrador puppies.
“Bless” asked for an e-mail address so he could contact Jones a second time. The e-mails and phone calls kept coming, Jones said.
“He kept emphasizing he would get back ASAP,” Sweep said. “He was very persistent.”
After Bless was emailed photos of the dogs, he offered to pay an extra $80 per pup for the “inconvenience” plus overnight shipping to California.
Jones was expecting a check for about $200 – a generous price for the dogs and shipping. Instead, $2,850 was mailed overnight to him with instructions to cash it, keep what he was owed and send the rest to a person in Florida who would pick up the dogs.
The check was written from Salem Communications, South Texas Broadcasting, on a California Bank. The check’s memo line read “instant cash.”
Jones and Sweep were suspicious of the “too good to be true” transaction and took the check to the County Attorney’s office. Their instincts were correct, County Attorney Dale Morris said.
Morris said he hasn’t received “any other complaints on this particular scam. The latest one I had was someone being told they had won a large cash prize and needed to send a monetary payment to cover taxes and fees.”
Scamorama says another downside to the con is business owners and residents are becoming suspicious of all calls from relay services.
“So when an honest deaf consumer calls to place an order the business refuses the call. The deaf consumer thinks its discrimination. Actually it is a frustrated merchant trying to prevent loss ....”
By using the relay system paid for by American taxpayers, the con artist doesn’t even have to pay for the international call.
Relay services became widespread after they were mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Scamorama offers these tips to avoid being scammed by relay callers:
• Be very aware of relay calls if you’ve never received one before. Ask questions that would determine the caller’s location and verify the validity of their deafness by asking them what sign language they speak. American Sign Language is most common in the U.S.
• Explain your knowledge of this scam and ask for their number so that you may call them back and verify that they possess a TTY (text telephone) and calling from a U.S. location. You will hear a couple short chirps similar to a dial up connection when a TTY phone answers.
• When you accept a check for payment for anything, wait until it clears before using any of the money from it or giving up the merchandise.
• Never give out your routing number and account number to someone you don’t know.
• If you meet someone online who wants to use your address to have items purchased in the U.S. shipped to, with the expectation for you to ship it to them after it arrives, time to end the friendship.