If you live in Tennessee or Mississippi, you may have found a surprise gift in your mailbox recently: a free cell phone and 250 monthly minutes. What’s that? You didn’t ask for one? And you don’t even qualify for one?
It turns out a rogue agent of Assurance Wireless, one of the major cell phone companies certified to participate in the federal government’s phone subsidy program called Lifeline Assistance, faked applications for the phones. As result, a number of cell phones were delivered to residents of these states who did not apply for them.
KFVS 12, who uncovered the fraud, tells the story:
Jack Pflanz, corporate communications manager for Assurance Wireless, said the New York-based company partners with community outreach organizations in the states where it offers the subsidized cell phones to help market the program.
He confirmed that an unnamed agent with a Tennessee outreach group “…was fraudulently filling out applications” with the names of Tennesseans and Mississippians, pulled from public records. The agent was apparently padding his submissions of “certified” applicants.
“We were able to stop some of the phones from shipping, but a few got through,” said Pflanz, who could not say how many phones were improperly shipped.
“The agent who engaged in the misconduct was immediately terminated by the community outreach organization, and that organization has taken responsibility for the incident,” he added, without releasing the name or location of the community outreach organization.
The incident revealed a loophole in the certification process.
A loophole? That’s an understatement. The fundamental problem with this well-intentioned program is that, other than random audits, no one is verifying the eligibility of the phone recipients. The program relies upon the potential phone recipient to swear that they qualify and that the information they are submitting is true.
There are two ways to qualify for a free cell phone and the 250 free monthly minutes of service through the Lifeline program. With program-based eligibility, you merely say that you are on another qualifying government-assistance program such as Medicaid, public housing assistance, food stamps and others; no proof is required. With income-based eligibility, you must send documentation such as paycheck stubs or W-2′s as proof. However, there is no way to know if the individual has submitted documentation from all his or her income sources.
As we see in an audit going on in Florida now, there seems to be no repercussion for lying on your application, other than returning a phone you should not have been given. When there are no consequences for misconduct, unethical actions are bound to occur. In today’s story, it was not the individual asking for the phone, but a member of an independent outreach organization, whose agent sought to benefit from increased commissions. But we know from hearing plenty of anecdotal stories, and from looking problems with at any government program that hands out benefits, there is plenty of misconduct by individual recipients.
As we say over and over on our pages here at FreeGovernmentCellPhones.net, we strongly back the free cell phone program because it offers critical assistance to those who need help most, but we are intensely opposed to the money being wasted on those who are gaming the system. Money is in short supply these days, and the Universal Service fees that support this program — those fees tacked on to everyone’s phone bills — should not be wasted. There needs to be controls in place, up front, to verify the status of applicants, not merely the occasional audit on the back end.
And we think the unnamed agent who committed the fraud should serve some time — without cell phone privileges.