August 28, 2018 11:48 PM
The Universal Service charge is tacked onto everyone's cell phone bill.
Each year, it brings in about $5-billion for the Federal Communications Commission.
That money pays for programs like the Federal Lifeline program, which provides free cell phones and government funded wireless service to low-income consumers.
There's no doubt it's a huge benefit for millions across the country, just like it is for Rochester's Jerry Britt.
He recently lost his job.
So, when a neighbor told him that there was a pop-up tent on Hudson Avenue and a man offering free cell phones, he jumped at the opportunity.
"This, you don't have to worry about a bill," said Britt. "The government is giving us an opportunity to have a phone. For emergency purposes, and for having to look for a job, for you to have family members be in touch with you, it makes it very feasible for all of us."
But an internal audit by the Federal Communication Commission showed that the Lifeline program was full of abuse and fraud.
Their investigation revealed that phone companies handed out more than a million taxpayer funded cell phones to people who didn't qualify for the service.
In one case, more than 10,000 people were listed at the same address.
Earlier this summer, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri revealed that 47,942 dead people were signed up and somebody received a free cell phone using one of those names.
For years, she has called on the FCC to create a system to independently verify the eligibility of those enrolled to help curb abuse.
"You don't tell people that they get to verify whether or not someone needs a phone when they're the ones that are going to make the money if they verify the phone," Senator McCaskill told FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at a federal hearing. "It will never work, because the incentives are in the wrong place."
In New York, the US Attorney's Office forced the company, Total Call, to pay back nearly $23-million to the federal government for fraudulently signing people up for the Lifeline program.
Last month, the FCC created an independent verifier in six different states, but that program has yet to reach New York. The commission also proposed several changes to the Lifeline program.
Those include restricting the number of companies that can offer free cell phones and put a cap on how long a person is able to qualify for the service.
At a U.S. Senate oversight meeting last week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told senators that the commission is committed to eliminating fraud in the program.
"Our goal is to make sure that every American that needs help through the Lifeline program is able to get it. Every dollar that is siphoned off by an unscrupulous wireless provider for example cannot go to someone that needs the help. That's why we've taken aggressive action on the enforcement side to make sure we weed out some of those unscrupulous actors."
Critics say the FCC changes to the program could cut the important service for nearly eight million Americans, which is nearly 70-percent of those that qualify for the program.
Rochester's Jerry Britt, who had all the right paperwork, is glad the program was here when he needed the help.
Updated: August 28, 2018 11:48 PM
Created: August 28, 2018 11:42 PM
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