Every day of the week, we hear from dozens of people who’ve lost their free government cell phones.
They’ve lost them in completely unpredictable ways like, “My baby flushed my cell phone down the toilet” or “My ex-boyfriend stole my phone” or “I accidentally left my cell phone on the subway” or “I loaned it to my daughter and she lost it at school.”
But those aren’t the only ways to lose your phone. Every customer should be aware that the Lifeline Assistance program has some very strict regulations. And if you violate any of those regulations — even accidentally — you may lose your free government cell phone. In fact, as soon as any of the following violations come to light, it is more likely that you will lose it than not.
Here are seven ways you could be disqualified and lose your free government cell phone.
We’ve all heard stories about people abusing the system and signing up for three, four, even a dozen or more free government cell phones. That’s why the Federal Communications Commission has instituted strict new regulations that crack down on fraud and require Lifeline companies to assure that free government cell phones are restricted to one per person. If you’re a customer, your name and address are now part of a huge national database. If you attempt to cheat the system and sign up for a second cell phone, your name will automatically pop up on the data base and your application will be rejected.
The USAC says, “A carrier that provides Lifeline Program-supported service must terminate service for any subscriber who fails to demonstrate continued eligibility within the 30-day time period.”
2. Having more than one phone per household
Unfortunately, if you live with your cousin Sally and she has a free government cell phone, you will not be eligible for one. Blame it on that new government database, your account will be automatically closed.
The USAC says, “If USAC, the administrator of universal service, provides notification to a telecommunications carrier that a subscriber has more than one discounted account, or that more than one member of a subscriber’s household is receiving service, the telecommunications carrier must de-enroll the subscriber within five business days.”
3. Not recertifying annually
Lifeline rules clearly state that you must certify annually that you still qualify for Lifeline Assistance. If you do not provide information adequate to substantiate your continued participation in the program, your account will be closed.
The USAC says, “If a telecommunications carrier has a reasonable basis to believe a subscriber is no longer an eligible consumer, the carrier will send the subscriber a notice of impending termination. The subscriber has 30 days from the date of the impending termination letter to demonstrate continued eligibility by re-certifying his or her continued eligibility.”
4. Failure to respond to your cell phone company’s request for certification
If you don’t re-certify in a timely basis, your phone company will send you a letter demanding that you do so within 30 days. This is very cut-and-dried: Provide your phone company with the paperwork they request or you’ll lose your phone.
The USAC says, “Subscribers have an obligation to re-certify annually that only one member of their household receives program-supported service and they continue to be eligible. If a subscriber fails to respond to a telecommunications carriers request for certification, the telecommunications carrier must provide the subscriber with notification that the subscriber has 30 days from the date of the notification to provide the requested certification.”
5. Getting off permissible government aid programs
To paraphrase the USAC and FCC authorities, “Congratulations! You no longer need government assistance and that means you lose your free government cell phone.”
The USAC says, “Subscribers have an obligation to inform their telecommunications carrier if they no longer qualify for Lifeline Program-supported service. Subscribers who become ineligible must de-enroll by contacting their telecommunications carrier directly.”
Most folks qualify for Lifeline service by participating in another federal or state assistance program. The theory goes, if you are on these designated programs then you have already proven yourself to be in financial need; so no need to prove it all over again. The following are universal federal assistance programs available in every state, but some states offer additional assistance programs through which you can also qualify:
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps or SNAP)
- National School Lunch Program’s Free Lunch Program
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Federal Public Housing Assistance (Section 8)
- Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
- Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)
- Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
- Tribally-Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TTANF)
- Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)
To find out which programs are available in your state, click here.
6. Getting a job with an annual income above federal poverty guidelines
We can’t imagine anything better than landing a job that pays well enough that you no longer qualify for a free government cell phone. There’s nothing that will fill you with more pride than being able to provide for yourself and your family.
But when you land that job, make sure you notify your Lifeline Assistance provider to let them know that you no longer qualify. If you don’t your free government cell phone account will eventually be cancelled and you may be required to reimburse the government for the period of time in which you used illegally used the free government cell phone service.
Also keep in mind that the incomes of everyone living in your household are added together to determine if you qualify.
In most states qualifying incomes fall below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. But some states allow you to qualify with household incomes that go all the way up to 150% of those same guidelines. Those states are Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas. And just to confuse things even further, California, Nevada and Vermont set their own levels.
For more information on how to qualify, click here.
7. Not “using” your free government cell phone for 60 days or more
Many Lifeline Assistance customers consider this the oddest way to lose your free government cell phone. If you don’t “use” it for 60 days or more, your account will be cancelled. Unfortunately, “use” has an odd definition according to the FCC.
For example, you’re out of luck if you only “use” your cell phone for texting, because that’s inadequate to satisfy USAC and FCC regulations. So make sure you place a voice call at least every 60 days or you could lose your phone.
The USAC says, “If a subscriber is receiving service for which the subscriber is not billed (for example, free wireless service), and the subscriber does not use the service for 60 consecutive days, the telecommunications carrier must provide the subscriber with 30 days notice that failure to use the service within the 30-day notice period will result in termination of program-supported service.”
It’s not hard to follow the rules
The federal government is really tightening the screws on fraud, waste and abuse in the Lifeline Assistance program. They’re looking for people who are cheating the program.
So take our advice: Follow the program’s relatively simple rules, keep your nose clean, and you’ll be able to continue talking and texting on your free government cell phone. Violate those rules and you’ll lose your phone.
It’s that simple.