Washington (CNN) - Federal authorities Thursday indicted 26 suspects in nine states in a wide-ranging scheme to defraud a program intended to help the deaf.
Officials said they arrested conspirators in New York, New Jersey,
Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Maryland.
"The individuals charged in connection with today's operation are alleged to have stolen tens of millions of dollars from an important government program that is intended to help deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans communicate with hearing persons," said Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Criminal Division.
Breuer told reporters the defendants allegedly generated fraudulent call minutes by making it appear that deaf Americans were engaging in legitimate calls with hearing persons. "In reality, the defendants were simply attempting to steal money from an FCC program that is funded by every single American who pays their telephone bills," he said.
The FBI was deeply involved in the investigation, authorities said.
Joseph Persichini Jr. assistant director of the FBI's Washington field office, added, "Unfortunately, this remarkable service designed to help those in need also provided a growth opportunity for criminal activity that we believe has cost American consumers tens of millions of dollars."
Officials said the 26 indicted individuals falsely billed the government at a rate of $390 per hour for using what is known as as a video relay service system.
The indictments say owners and employees of seven companies engaged in the scheme. The firms are located in Rockville, Maryland; Las Vegas, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; Austin Texas; Miami Lakes, Florida; and Huntington Beach, California; and one firm operated in both New York and New Jersey.