Video Relay Services [VRS] providers have long looked for ways to make more money and gain additional traction in the market. This has led to many cases of fraudulent use of FCC funds. Employees from providers such as Viable, Purple, and Hawk Relay were persecuted gone to jail or have had to pay back restitutions as high as 20 million dollars to the Federal Government.

Because of the history of fraud, the government has been reducing the pay-per-minute rates and increasing oversight and regulation of the industry. In 2002 the going rate for per minute was $9.614 per minute and now it is $5.29 for the Emergent tier up to 500,000 monthly minutes. All VRS providers are within the first and second tier with exception to Sorenson who has always reported up to the third tier (which means they have the highest amount of minutes reported to FCC.)

These cases happened nearly a decade ago, however ever since the pandemic began back in March of 2020, suspicious behaviors have started up again. Is this at the fault of the providers or are the consumers participating in fraudulent practices such as utilizing VRS interpreters for inappropriate activities?

While many in-person activities have gone “remote”; organizations, schools, and providers are not absolved from being responsible to pick up the expenses that would typically be classified as reasonable accommodations. VRS interpreters are reportedly being used on multiple video platforms being used by the company, provider, or institution rather than hiring interpreters independently. The purpose of VRS is to create a functional equivalent for Deaf callers.

What kind of activities could be classified as inappropriate? FCC has already answered this question back in 2005.

Public Notice DA 05-2417 dated September 07, 2005 which was a reminder to VRS providers that Video Relay Service cannot be a substitute for Video Remote Interpreting citing that VRI includes remote interpreting for “classrooms, during medical appointments, at staff meetings, or for business transactions”.

Under FCC TRS Rules 47 C.F.R. § 64.601, paragraph 15 has the following definition of “functionally equivalent” services:

“Telecommunications relay services (TRS). Telephone transmission services that provide the ability for an individual who has a hearing or speech disability to engage in communication by wire or radio with a hearing individual in a manner that is functionally equivalent to the ability of an individual who does not have a hearing or speech disability to communicate using voice communication services by wire or radio.”

If an individual were to attend a company-wide meeting, they should expect their employer to get a video remote interpreter not call their Video phone using a Video Relay Services interpreter. There are Video Remote Interpreting [VRI] businesses that are for hire that the agencies and organizations listed above could be hiring so that they are following the ADA law. When these businesses are discovering that VRS exists, they are absolving themselves of paying for these interpreters and placing the responsibility on the Telecommunications industry. These funds were not intended for this kind of utilization but rather for telephone calls that a hearing person would normally utilize a cell phone for.

It is important to keep in mind that other obstacles are in place such as the knowledge each interpreter has. Not all VRS interpreters are educational interpreters, they are not all medical interpreters, they are not all qualified to interpret legal situations, therefore why is the community allowing their doctors, schools, or employers to utilize VRS when there are interpreters out there that need work and have the knowledge to be able to provide a more appropriate and user-friendly experience.

Contrary to expectations, there is no way for a customer to make a phone call and guarantee that the first interpreter who has the legal jargon know-how will pick up the phone. The only way to guarantee this is for the legal agency to be responsible for booking interpreters that have worked with them in the past, for medical offices to make phone calls to interpreters or agencies that have worked with them in the past, and so forth. These “VRS phone calls” are doing a disservice for the Deaf community and for the interpreters.     

There are also VRS providers that are currently advertising the usage of VRS in this manner within their marketing which leads to some questions on the intention of the provider to participate in fraudulent behavior. Are these providers enabling interpreters to end calls that do not fall under typical telephone calls?

Interpreters are reporting that they are not allowed to hang up. They are overworked and exhausted because of nontraditional phone calls being placed. There was an example shared with Deaf Vee Journal to help give examples of some of the type of requests that are being made:

“There are Deaf callers that are sitting with a group of people watching uncaptioned movies and calling VRS interpreters on zoom and having us interpret 2-hour movies. Because we are being told we cannot hang up if it is a Zoom call, we sit there and interpret the call because it is being classified as legitimate by the provider.” (Anonymous)

Interpreters from all providers are being encouraged to contact FCC if they feel like there has been any questionable practices or to share their concerns. There are two ways to report to FCC:  

The first is if you have a whistleblower protection complaint, report it to the FCC OIG Hotline. You can report Waste, Fraud & Abuse at: Telephone: (202) 418-0473 Toll Free: (888) 863-2244 E-Mail: [email protected]

You can also file an informal consumer complaint from the Consumer Complaint Center home page. The provider you filed a complaint against has 30 days to respond however it will become public information and if you are an interpreter there is always a possibility of retaliation if you file a complaint in this manner.