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Me and My Obamaphones
Not on welfare or below the poverty line? Never mind — here’s your free phone.


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Schaefer also tells me that “consumers are, on their applications, required to certify under penalty of perjury that they will only be receiving one Lifeline discount.”

But when I went around New York signing up for multiple phones, I never even saw the applications; SafeLink and Assurance vendors filled out the necessary forms on their tablets on my behalf, clicking through so quickly that it must have been nearly muscle memory. And nobody mentioned perjury.

Granted, the first question the wireless reps asked was usually whether I was already enrolled in the Lifeline program. I told the truth: I had signed up recently, but the phone hadn’t arrived in the mail yet. Almost always, that got me re-entered into the system without hesitation.

When I did receive my SafeLink phone a few days later, I started informing vendors that I did have one Lifeline phone. They assured me that the Lifeline program permitted me to have one phone from each participating wireless provider — which simply isn’t true.

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Maybe there’s a disconnect between the corporate offices of wireless providers and their men on the street; a letter I later received from Assurance mentioned that “a household is not permitted to receive Lifeline benefits from multiple providers. Violation of the one-per-household rule constitutes a violation of federal rules and will result in de-enrollment from the Lifeline program and potentially prosecution by the United States government.”

But the wireless providers aren’t doing much due diligence, if my experience is indicative.

At the Union Square location, a SafeLink rep noted that I was already approved for a phone and declined to re-enter my information — but the rep from Assurance, standing only a few feet away, readily signed me up.

At the welfare office on Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn, a vendor hesitated when I told her that I’d already applied but the phone had not yet been delivered. “Surely your system will catch if I’m actually enrolled,” I told her. She shrugged and signed me up once more.

At the DeKalb Avenue office in Brooklyn, when I told the rep I wasn’t receiving welfare, I was signed up for a phone but cautioned that I might well be denied upon secondary review.

And at one Lifeline location in East Harlem, I walked up to the wireless representative talking very loudly on my own smartphone. I hung up only to answer her questions. Now, keep in mind that the program is supposed to provide cell-phone service to people too poor to afford any phone whatsoever — but my application for a subsidized mobile was happily submitted, even as I dinked around very obviously on my existing smartphone.

So here’s the final count: I was able to apply on the street for one SafeLink phone and seven Assurance phones. I received one SafeLink phone and two Assurance phones, no questions asked. For several other applications, Assurance sent me requests for more financial information.

Finally, I received one other letter, full of grammatical errors, informing me that “there is already an Assurance Wireless account established at this address” and requesting further information about my application. I find it curious that Assurance caught a duplicate only once, considering that I’ve got seven entries in their system, and that they have on file my name, address, HRA case number, and, in some instances, photos of my insurance card and driver’s license. SafeLink was slightly better about catching duplications on the street, but it still gave me a phone when it shouldn’t have.

Since receiving my undeserved phones, I’ve repeatedly tried to reach both SafeLink and Assurance press reps for comment, all to no avail. Their corporate offices have sent me the numbers of their customer-service centers, which are easily accessible and happy to offer plan upgrades to Lifeline clients.

Representative Tim Griffin (R., Ark.) has long opposed the Lifeline wireless subsidies, making it a pet cause. He reiterated the basic point I had learned from this experience: The problems began when the federal government got in the business of providing free cell phones, and the FCC’s recent reforms aren’t sufficient.

“I saw all the horror stories of people getting 10, 20, 30, 40 phones,” Griffin says, “the [wireless] companies not paying a lot of attention and in some cases no attention to who was getting them and whether they were getting duplicates.”

And if you’ve been wondering why the companies are so eager to hand out free phones, the incentive is built into the program. As Griffin explains, “Of course, the way the program was set up, [wireless companies] were getting money for every one they could give out, so they gave out as many as they could.”

And still do.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.



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