ATLANTA (WXIA) -- A federal program that gives free phones to poor Georgians is being abused and the government is cracking down. An 11Alive viewer was concerned about fraud and sent the Waste Watchers team an e-mail about it.
A doctor who works in a medical office in Atlanta said someone wanted to use his address to have a free federal cell phones delivered, in order to bypass the rules. He said the person even bragged about getting five free cell phones when people are only allowed to have one. The tipster wants to know what's being done about it.
"There are about a dozen providers that the Commission has approved to offer this service in Georgia" said Georgia Public Service Commission spokesman Bill Edge.
Wireless phone providers like Nexus, T-Mobile and Assurance/Virgin Mobile offer low-income people free phones, 250 free minutes and 250 free text messages.
You're paying for it on your phone bill. It's called the Universal Service Charge.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission paid $1.75 billion to telecommunication companies to provide landline and cell service to poor families. It's called the Lifeline Program. An estimated 1.8 million Georgians are eligible.
The subsidy is only supposed to cover one landline or cell phone per household, but the FCC has discovered widespread abuse and is now cracking down.
"They've instituted some new requirements aimed at reducing the fraud and abuse," Edge said.
The requirements include scouring subscriber rolls to eliminate duplicate subscribers and eliminating unnecessary connection fees that were lining telecommunication companies' pockets.
In a recent statement, the FCC says it's on track to save $200 million this year by cracking down on abuse and eliminating duplicate and unused accounts that make cell companies richer.
Georgia's Public Service Commission regulates the providers to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do.
"If a person doesn't use his service for 60 days, they have to drop those subscribers from the service," Edge said.
If you see fraud and abuse and know someone who's getting more than one free cell phone, tell us about. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You should also report it to the FCC. The number is 1-888-225-5322.
FCC Statement on Lifeline Abuse and Fraud
Over the past 25 years, Lifeline has helped tens of millions of low-income Americans afford basic phone service, keeping them connected to jobs, family, and opportunities. However, as the program evolved in 2005 to include increasingly popular and useful low-cost wireless service offerings, its rules to protect against waste, fraud and abuse failed to keep pace. Any kind of waste in this important program is unacceptable. That's why the FCC has completely overhauled Lifeline. Earlier this year, the FCC adopted comprehensive reform projected to save $2 billion over three years. Changes and initiatives include:
- Establishing a rule limiting Lifeline subscriptions to one per household
- Reviewing over 7 million subscriber records and identifying over 700,000 duplicates since last year.
- Will be reviewing subscriber records for duplicates in Georgia later this year
- Developing a national subscriber database to prevent future duplicate subscriptions, to be available in early 2013
- Requiring new subscribers to document their eligibility for the program and provide a valid residential address at sign up. Carriers and states must inquire whether the subscriber's address is permanent or temporary and must collect a billing address if different from the subscriber's residential address.
- Any Lifeline subscriber who provides false or fraudulent information to receive Lifeline benefits is punishable by law.
- Establishment of uniform, nationwide, verifiable eligibility standards to eliminate enrollment of ineligible subscribers
- Requiring subscribers to recertify eligibility annually
- Requiring many carriers - mostly wireless resellers detailing how they will comply with new rules. Until their compliance plans are approved, these companies will receive no Lifeline support in new markets
- Eliminating unnecessary subsidies for initial connections, known as LinkUp.
- Ongoing investigations into potential Lifeline fraud by the FCC's Enforcement Bureau
We will not allow a few bad actors to destroy a program that has provided a lifeline to emergency 911 calling, family, and jobs for so many low-income Americans.