New Castle News

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December 10, 2013

AT&T agrees to pay $3.5 million in whistle-blower case

NEW CASTLE — Attorney Rebecca Lyttle is writing a movie script.

The story is filled with shady dealings, claims of international fraud and the victimization of mom-and-pop businesses.

It is based on the experience of her sister, Constance Lyttle of Mercer, who had been a communications assistant at the AT&T call center in New Castle from 1997 until she was fired in February 2010.

The Lancaster, Pa.-based lawyer represented her sister in a whistle-blower case. It was concluded last week when AT&T agreed to a $3.5 million settlement and admitted a percentage of callers had been engaged in scammer calls, Rebecca Lyttle said. “They did not admit to wrongdoing.”

Earlier this year, she continued, AT&T agreed to reimburse the Federal Communications Commission more than $18 million for not stopping international scam artists using stolen credit cards from taking money from a service meant to aid individuals with speech and hearing disabilities.

Last week’s $3.5 million settlement resolved civil allegations under the federal False Claims Act.

Rebecca Lyttle said her sister had received a settlement — a fraction of the $3.5 million — but would not say how much.

She said her sister also was offered reinstatement to her job but declined, adding she is working part time elsewhere.

Attempts to reach Constance Lyttle were unsuccessful.

In 2003, AT&T was mandated through the Americans with Disabilities Act to offer voice telephone service to hearing- and speech-disabled people and to use intermediaries to provide real-time conversations.

Disabled individuals type messages using a computer or electronic device. Call center operators, including Lyttle’s sister, relayed the messages to a hearing person on the other end.

The service was free to users, but the Federal Communications Commission reimbursed AT&T $1.30 per minute for providing the service. This money was paid from a fund created by fees included on phone bills.

The system was taken over almost immediately by Nigerian scammers, Lyttle said.

According to the lawsuit, filed in October 2010, about 95 percent of all calls made using this service were placed by Nigerian con artists who scammed money and merchandise from unsuspecting businesses and individuals.

Lyttle said the foreign callers, accessing the system via the Internet, placed large orders for merchandise — usually with small businesses — and used stolen credit card numbers to pay for the orders. She added that using stolen identity and bank codes, the Nigerian callers “transferred the life savings of innocent people from their banks to off-shore accounts.”

Lyttle said her sister and others at the call center realized immediately what was happening, but were powerless to stop it.

“They made the workers sign agreements that they would put through the scam and fraudulent calls, and they actually used those words,” Lyttle said.

“The workers at the call center were afraid they would lose their jobs. AT&T paid very well and good-paying jobs are hard to come by in western Pennsylvania.”

Lyttle said her sister admitted she would sabotage some calls, saying the party at the other end had hung up. “We allege in our lawsuit that is why she was fired.”

The suit also alleged AT&T knew what was going on.

“But they were getting $1.30 per minute for these calls. Think about the volume of calls that were being made,” she said. “They had about 150 operators in the New Castle center where my sister worked and they operated 24/7, as did other call centers.”

In January 2012, she said, the FCC stopped paying AT&T for the relay calls.

“We filed the complaint with the belief that the U.S. government and taxpayers were being defrauded, that we had information that AT&T was condoning fraud and taking money they should not be getting.”

A whistle-blower suit, she explained, is filed under seal. “That means information is kept confidential. AT&T didn’t know.”

The Justice Department investigated for more than a year and in March 2012, became involved in the suit.

“They claimed AT&T was paid $16 million for relaying fraudulent calls since December 2009.”

The Justice Department sought to recover “millions of dollars in damages, restitution and penalties from AT&T for the improper handling and billing of thousands of .. relay calls made by Nigerian and other international users seeking to defraud U.S. merchants.”

Lyttle, who graduated from law school in 2005, said she was glad for the help.

She added that when the Justice Department becomes involved, “They take over the case and do most of the work.”

Lyttle said she will continue her law practice, specializing in civil rights and whistle-blower cases. “There are a lot of other people out there who need help.”

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)

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