Nearly deaf CA woman loses $10,000 to scam typed on her CapTel phone

Phone caption operators can't intervene when scammers swindle the hearing impaired, federal law says

ByStephanie Sierra and Renee Koury KGO logo
Wednesday, April 3, 2024
Nearly deaf CA woman loses $10K to scam typed on her CapTel phone
Telephone captioning services enable millions of hard-of-hearing people to talk by phone -- but it also allows scammers to reach the hearing impaired.

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (KGO) -- Telephone captioning services enable millions of hearing-impaired people to talk by phone -- a much-needed lifeline to the outside world. But it's also a direct line for phone scammers to reach the hearing impaired.

Federal law requires captioning operators to type every single word a caller says -- even if it's a scammer swindling a disabled person. One Bay Area family found out their nearly deaf mom followed a scammer's instructions -- typed verbatim by CapTel operators - and lost thousands in a terrifying scam.

"Without CapTel, she never would have been able to hear the caller. She never would have understood them and she never would have been scammed," said the woman's daughter, Donna Badgett of Redwood City..

Badgett is still trying to understand how a telephone captioning service, meant to help her hearing-impaired mom, also helped somebody scam her.

"I feel horrible because her hearing has been bad, getting progressively worse... so I bought it for her for Christmas thinking I was doing her a favor..." Badgett said,.

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A Santa Rosa grandmother realized too late she'd handed $20,000 in cash to a scammer after she was told she was helping stop child porn.

Her 83-year-old mother, Judith, got the call one morning on her CapTel phone: her grandson was in jail. Was she posting bail?

Judith had heard about "grandma scams" but words on the screen made it seem real.

"Like I said, she wouldn't have been frauded without it," Badgett said.

The caller claimed to be a lawyer trying to get DUI charges reduced for "her relative."

The CapTel operator silently typed every word the scammer said.

"If you can post bail quickly, I can make sure it's a misdemeanor, not a felony, but you need to act quickly... where's your nearest bank... he looked it up, 'Oh they open at 10 o'clock,'" said Badgett, recalling the captioning logs.

Judith asked about her grandson.

The operator typed the reply: "He's a bit embarrassed and wants to keep this between you guys, he did suffer minor injuries. The airbag broke his nose. They gave him about 5 stitches."

The CapTel operator typed out the scammer's instructions: "Get a 9 by 12 manila envelope. Purchase it on the way to the bank, you're gonna put the envelope from the bank in the middle of two magazines, and then you're gonna place it in the manila envelope like you're making a sandwich."

MORE: SIM swap victim loses $46K as thieves take over her phone number and bank accounts

Moon's bank account was raided and over $46,000 stolen. She says the thieves managed to get her mobile phone service switched over to them.

A courier would pick it up. He said, "The driver doesn't know anything about the case. He's like an Uber driver, leave me on the line and head outside, ask his name, give him the package."

"So my mom put the phone down, went outside, delivered the money. He called back an hour and a half later... 'I have bad news. The woman that was in the car with him was pregnant. She lost her baby,'" Badgett said.

The con man wanted more money from Judith, supposedly to pay the woman's medical bills, and damages for losing her baby.

The CapTel operator typed his every command. "Go back to the bank, get the cash, put it in the magazines."

Later the family got the call logs and could see every word the scammer said over about a dozen calls -- and the pressure he put on their elderly mom.

"I read a couple (of the logs) the first time and I couldn't do it any more. It was so disheartening," said Badgett.

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Badgett was furious that the CapTel operators didn't try to stop the scam and, she says, effectively assisted in a crime.

"I mean, they are transcribing fraudulent calls. They enabled her to get scammed," said Badgett.

But the CapTel company, Hamilton Relay Services, says federal law makes it illegal for transcribers to intervene in any call -- even if it is a scam.

The operators must serve as "invisible conduits... without censoring, altering or interfering in any way with personal and private communications."

Federal Communications Commission rules and the Americans With Disabilities Act require that captioning services provide the same rights of privacy afforded to hearing phone users, who expect no one is listening in on their calls.

"I said, 'Couldn't you even say, you know, please note we think this is a scam?'" said Badgett, wiping tears.

Badgett can't believe it was illegal for the company to notify her that her mom was being swindled -- or even to stop typing the scammer's instructions.

"I think things have to change. The FCC has to make these changes... have an emergency contact on the account, or alert the local police or local bank, right? It's just so disheartening," said Badgett.

Online forums among caption operators show some disagreement about their role. Should they have discretion to intervene in troubling calls? Where would they draw the line? What if a caller was threatening physical harm? Right now the law says they may not step out of their invisible role.

If you've served as a transcriber for the hearing-impaired -- or been a victim of a scam perpetrated over a captioning service phone, we'd like to hear from you.

Here's a full statement from Hamilton Relay Services:

"Hamilton is very sympathetic to the situation you have shared. We work diligently to enable clear communications for all our users. Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have correctly determined that this requires all calls to be relayed completely, accurately, and in compliance with all federal regulations - without a third party like us censoring, altering, or interfering in any way with personal and private communications.

We think it is important to understand how the Telecommunications Relay Service functions and the restrictions placed on it by Congress when it enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The ADA ensures that individuals who are deaf, deaf-blind, or hard of hearing are able to communicate in a manner that is "functionally equivalent" with a hearing individual. These important services from Hamilton and other Relay providers help bring independence to users in a way that was impossible before the creation of Relay.

Section 225 of the Federal Communications Act, which was adopted as part of the ADA, prohibits Relay operators (also known as Communications Assistants, or CAs) from disclosing the content of any relayed conversation and from keeping records of the content of any such conversation beyond the duration of the call. It is because of this limited role of the CA that the FCC has frequently referred to Relay as being equivalent to receiving a dial tone.

For this reason, the FCC, which regulates Hamilton and other Relay providers, considers Relay to be a "transparent conduit" for communications. (FCC 04-137, para. 154). The FCC has recognized that permitting CAs to step out of their role as invisible conduits in a call would create tension with the functional equivalency principle.

In addition, under Section 64.604 of the FCC's rules, Hamilton is required to transmit all Relay calls completely and accurately, verbatim, and is prohibited from altering or recording any Relay call. Because of this, Hamilton's captioned telephone platform has been designed so that a CA cannot speak to either party, and can only hear the party being captioned. Hamilton and other providers are also authorized to provide Captioned Telephone Service using Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) without the presence of a CA. Similar to a CA, the ASR platform is not permitted to intervene in a call.

Like other telephone carriers (for both hearing and non-hearing individuals), when Hamilton is presented with a valid subpoena of records from law enforcement, Hamilton willingly complies, and would do so in this instance if approached by law enforcement about this matter. But federal law does not authorize Hamilton to act in a law enforcement role by intervening during a call.

Again, we sympathize with the complainant's situation, but we believe it is a matter for law enforcement to handle given the restrictions within which Hamilton operates under federal law."

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