Scams and the Caption Phone System

Robert Traynor
March 15, 2016

Added May 7, 2016:

EDITORS CLARIFICATION: To clarify an error in this article: the “scams” described here do NOT occur with captioned telephone service (CTS),  including CapTel Captioned Telephone and other reputable telephone services which had no involvement in the preparation of this article.   The fraudulent behavior described in this article has been reported with IP Relay service, which is an entirely separate form of telephone service than captioned telephone services.  Consumers can be 100% assured that their captioned telephone service has not been compromised or used for illegal purposes, and that the fraudulent behavior presented here is in no way related to or impacting  upon their captioned telephone service. Hearing International regrets any misperceptions that this article may have created about the reputable captioned telephone services in general or about CapTel specifically, which are trustworthy, reputable services that are extremely valuable for people with hearing loss.


A few weeks ago at Hearing International we discussed the development of the caption phones. We described those involved and the inventions that were created mostly by the deaf bringing about this fabulous system now used in many countries around the world forctty communication by the deaf and hard of hearing.  The creativity of deaf engineers and the community in general now allows millions of hearing impaired individuals access to the phone system normally.

While they are a miracle for the hearing impaired, a criminal element also uses these phones for their illicit activities.  To understand how the criminal element can exploit these systems, let’s first check out how they work.

The Caption Phone

Recall from our recent discussion of the development of the caption phone that it came about through the efforts of those involved in the evolution of the old World War II teletype devices into an instrument by which the hearing impaired could access the tty13telephone system and communicate.  Its development in the late 1960s and through the 1970s by Robert Weitbrect, John Marsters and Andrew Saks, enabled the deaf and hard of hearing to access the telephone system for the first time to schedule appointments, receive calls from friends, and generally interact with others more easily.

Currently, the system used in the US and many other countries, involves special phones and special people that connect and interact with the parties involved in the call.

How These Systems Work


The hearing impaired person dials the other party’s number, exactly the same way as with any other telephone. As the number is dialed, the phone automatically connects to a free captioning service. When the other party answers, you hear everything they say as in a traditional phone call. The captioning service transcribes everything they say into captions,ctty1 so it can be read as well.

The way you see captions on incoming calls depends on which phone you use. With some models, people call your number directly like any other phone call. With other models, callers dial the captioning service first and enter your phone number.  Basically a call might go something like this:

The hearing impaired customer logs on to a free website and types in a phone number and a message.  An operator on the other end of the call reads the exact message and the types back the reply.

About 22 million calls are expected to be placed in this manner costing phone customers some $92.5 million each year.  In the US and some other countries using the systems, the actual phones are funded by a communications tax that is paid by all phone customers accessing the communications network system for either cell (mobile) or land line phones. The charge on the monthly bill is called either disability access or carrier cost recovery fee.

…………..So What’s The Scam?

As in other very beneficial operations, the criminal element has figured out a method to perpetuate the use of this system for illicit activity.  Often the calls come from outside the country, in the US, it is usually from India, Jamaica or other parts of the world. The relay operators are required by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to repeat all that is said during the conversation even if a crookcrime is being committed.

In 2006 an NBC expose was conducted on these scams and IP Relay operators reported that while they are required to relay all information presented to the client, even if a crime is being committed; the operators felt that the system was being exploited by crooks and they were helping them in the scam.  In their words, “very rarely did we get an actual hearing impaired call” and I felt like a criminal after I left work”.

According to the IP Relay Operators, here’s how the scam works.  Overseas thieves with stolen credit card information use the free service to place large orders with unsuspecting US companies.  Those companies think they are actuallycrook1 dealing with and helping a hearing impaired person and the scammers only communicate through the operators, thus the businesses never hear the crooks real voices.

It appears that in 2006, the FCC knew about these scammers, but the US government insured privacy by not keeping records of these calls that could identify the content of their conversations.  The FCC says that they are concerned about these reports and will make any necessary rule changes, but recent checks (2015) of IP Relay procedure suggest that there is still nothing that has been done to record these conversation nor to reduce the frustration of the IP Relay operators that feel as though they are party to criminal behavior.

These days with the ISIS activity going one as well as the criminal activity continuing it seems that this system is vulnerable and needs to have a bit of supervision to keep it from being used for illegal activity.

Captel (2016).  How it works. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
Federal Communications Commission (2015).  IP Relay Fraud. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
News 2 (2006).  Criminals take advantage of hearing impaired phone system. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
Wikipedia (2016).  Telecommunications relay service. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
Axis (2016).  Cyber crime:  The impact of telephone toll fraud on small business. Axis Insurance Services, LLC.  Retrieved March 15, 2016.
Captel (2016).  How it works. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
Lang, H., (1999). The Harry G. Lang Collection on Early TTY History, 1947-1999.  Gallaudet University Deaf Collections and Archives, Manuscripts, MSS201.  Retrieved March 15, 2016.
Metropolitan Police (2016). Youngsters targeted by robbers for smart phones.  Mayors office for policing and crime, 2016.  Retrieved March 15, 2016.
  1. There are several inaccuracies in this article as well as incomplete information and misleading statements, including the implication that captioned telephone service (CTS) and internet protocol relay service (IP Relay) are the same, when in fact, they are not the same service at all. I encourage you to reach out to the Telecommunications Equipment Distribution Program Association (TEDPA) at, to the National Association for State Relay Administration (NASRA) at or to the Telephone Access Program or Telephone Equipment Distribution Program in your own state (TEDPA’s website can provide each state’s program contact information) to get accurate, up-to-date and relevant information on the wide variety of products and services available for consumers with hearing and/or speech difficulties.

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