Md. is Top Abuser of Free Phone Service: 'Lifeline' - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Md. is Top Abuser of Free Phone Service: 'Lifeline'

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SALISBURY, Md.- If you receive food stamps, Medicaid or other government assistance, you may qualify for a free cellphone. So if the qualified phone users are not paying for the service, who is?

You-- other cellphone users.

Take a close look at your monthly cellphone bill. The Universal Service Fee is the federal assistance program, Lifeline, going.

Lifeline users have no bills, contracts or credit checks. 

The FCC is pushing to expand Lifeline by adding Internet to the free phones. But after reports of fraud within the federal program, Lifeline may need congressional CPR.

Ronald Williams, of Princess Anne, said federal lawmakers need to control this what he believes is spiraling out of control.

"Lose the phones. Have people who are actually looking for a job come get the phones," said Williams. "Don't just have them call an 800- number and send them in."

People with government assistance can apply for the phones online, on the phone and through the mail.

The application ask for your basic information and for you to check a box next to the government assistance you receive. After a month, you have your hands on a free cellphone with 250 minutes and text messaging.

Some federal lawmakers are asking the federal government to take a look into what they have nicknamed "Obama Phones."

But many federal lawmakers are catching heat for naming the program, "Obama Phones." Lifeline has been around since the days of President Ronald Reagan. The Federal Communications Commission authorized payment only for land-line phones during the Reagan administration. The fund paid for hooking up one line per household, then subsidize most if not all of the monthly phone bill.

Lifeline cost less than $500,000 in 2007, before the FCC decided to let people apply for subsidized cell service. Today the program costs more than $2 billion a year, according to the FCC.

Williams, who pays about $100 in cell phone charges each month, said the free phones are getting into the wrong hands.

"It's not getting the results they [federal lawmakers] want," Williams said. "If unemployment isn't going down. If the people that have received the phones haven't gotten a job yet...they are probably not looking."

Maryland is the second highest target for fraud related to the phones, according to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Phones are popping up at crime scenes and in drug deals. Phone user Steve Stanley said that is not always the case.

"Once I came home from prison, I didn't have a lot of things and one of things was a phone," said Stanley.

Stanley said he uses his phone for only important things.

"It's like a small, little small phone. It doesn't have a camera on it," said Stanley while describing his phone. "I actually use the government phone for doctor appointments."

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn told the Consumer Federation of America, the Universal Service Fee [Lifeline] does not provide free cell phones to poor, and instead is an important benefit to 15 million families who could otherwise not afford phone service.

Clarissa Ramon, of telecom advocacy group Public Knowledge, believes low-income families in the U.S. still need a lifeline.

"Policy-makers, who cry fiscal wolf and urge cuts to the USF program, ignore the fact that although economic recovery is occurring- many Americans are still hurting," she wrote in a blog post on PK's website. "Economically challenged Americans need that connection that Lifeline guarantees to remain connected to employment and educational opportunities."

Stanley said he used his "government phone" to land two jobs.

"Low income Americans, including the elderly on fixed incomes also rely on Lifeline to connect to 911 and emergency medical services," wrote Ramon. She added, "protecting the ability of elderly and low income Americans to remain connected to community services and the greater economy is a responsibility that should be a priority to policy-makers on both sides of the aisle."

But Williams is not buying it.

"We pay the government to set up programs that they believe is beneficial for the people. Now taxpayers don't like this program," said Williams. "Our government officials or even our local officials are making this crap up. But who are they actually trying to help by giving them a free phone?"

Stanley said it will help him and others who cannot imagine life without lifeline.

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