Lifeline, a federal subsidy program that provides discounted phone service for qualifying low-income consumers, ensures that Americans in every state, territory and commonwealth, including Tribal lands, have access to affordable communication services. Recipients of the benefit are required to have income at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or participate in a qualified state, federal or Tribal assistance program. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports that authorities have identified two phone companies that allegedly used forged records to receive federal funding under the Lifeline program.
The story details that former sales agents of an Oklahoma City-based telecommunications company and its affiliate allegedly fabricated and signed application records in order to receive a portion of the government benefits from Lifeline. In addition, the story reports the two telecommunication companies received nearly $90 million in 2012 from the Lifeline benefits program, which annually disburses $2.2 billion. (That works out to about $9.25 a month per approved customer.)
The investigation, prompted by several members of Congress, is currently analyzing how one of the companies acquired more than 30,000 new customers in the State of Indiana considering the company reportedly had no full-time employees located in the Hoosier state. The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission stated that one of the telephone companies approved applications for people who claimed to live in homes that were vacant or abandoned.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which operates the Lifeline subsidy program, has been criticized by authorities for not doing a better job at policing the program. In this particular case, the two telecommunication companies have agreed to cooperate with state regulators to improve safeguards against fraud and abuse. (Good move!) As the investigation continues, they are required to stop accepting new customers for 90 days, while purging their database of customers who are not eligible for the subsidy program. After listening to witness statements at the next hearing, the commission will determine how to proceed.
Clearly, the facts in this case are still under investigation, and I won’t speculate about the outcome. The circumstances alleged in the article remind us, though, how easy it could be to perpetrate fraud against this program that literally extends a communications “lifeline” to deserving and eligible beneficiaries. So, what advice would you give to the Lifeline program to close this potential loophole on fraud?