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Fraud Charged in Lifeline Telephone Program

January 6, 2014
Plain English Version

A low-cost and free telephone program is available from the federal government. It is called the Lifeline program.

More than 15 million families are using the program. Cell phones were included in the program in 2005.

Low-income families get discounts on their phone bills. The first 250 minutes and 250 text messages are free. This makes it possible for many to have phone service.

Georgia and other states say there is widespread abuse by some participants in the Lifeline program. State officials charge many homes are getting more than one Lifeline phone. Some poor people are no different than some non-poor. If the system is not regulated, why not get two or three phones?

The program does not do much checking of participants. Georgia wants to impose a $5 a month charge for the basic service. This can cause a problem for poor people. They need phones but may not be able to afford them.

Opponents of the $5 fee say if a family can only afford the free phone, they will be hurt by the $5 monthly charge.

The telephone industry is a strong supporter of the Lifeline program. They think today’s poor people are the working people of tomorrow. They think it is a good idea to get them as customers now.

The companies are supposed to decide who is eligible. To be in the program, people must have incomes below 135 percent of the poverty level. Or be eligible for another federal program such as food stamps

A woman in Oklahoma wanted to see how easy it would be to get a phone. She waited in line at a tent to see if the vendor would give her a free phone even though she does not qualify. He did.

“Anybody can get them. They say it’s a lifeline… they’re for needy people. I’m not needy and I went up and I got one with no ID no proof of income, nothing,” She said

Policy makers know that some people will try to take advantage of programs. Their challenge is to discourage abuse. At the same time they do not want to penalize honest people.

The states and federal governments are proposing new ways to collect information on Lifeline telephone use.

Source: The New York Times                                                                                December 28, 2013

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