Elizabeth Johnson isn't on government assistance.
She never tried to get a nearly free phone. But she's been getting a bill for one since last April.
This is the latest turn in an eight-month FOX23 investigation. FOX23 already found fraud and waste in the government-run program called Lifeline.
It's supposed to give people on government assistance a discounted cell phone. But not everyone who signs up is who they claim to be
"It’s infuriating to me," Elizabeth said.
She got a welcome letter from Assist Wireless ten months ago. Then bills for a few dollars a month started showing up.
"Somebody used my name and address to get a phone in my name," Elizabeth said.
She called the phone number that was in her name. A man she didn't know picked up.
"I asked him who he was and how he used my info to get the phone... and he hung up.
"I've been fighting with (Assist Wireless) ever since," Elizabeth said.
Despite calls and letters to Assist Wireless, the bills kept coming.
"These government programs... really need to do their homework and make sure that person is who they say they are," she said.
FOX23's investigation last November revealede several cases where a FOX23 undercover photojournalist was told it was okay he didn't have photo identification and could get a phone without proof of government assistance.
Elizabeth thinks that kind of practice led to someone getting a phone in her name.
So why not shut it off? As part of the Lifeline program, Assist Wireless gets about $35 a month from the federal government for each phone.
"I told them I don't qualify. I don't want it. They don't care," she said.
FOX23 tried to get answers from Assist Wireless - first at their tent at 61st & Peoria.
The cell phone agent there told us he wouldn't comment.
So FOX23 contacted the company management. And Assist Wireless's attorney contacted FOX23, saying he would only answer questions by email.
He wrote that that Assist Wireless cannot be certain whether Elizabeth's was a case of consumer fraud. But he said Assist will return all Lifeline disbursements associated with Elizabeth's account.
He said Assist requires both proof of identity and eligibility. The company recently implemented additional safeguards by requiring cell phone agents to take photos of both forms of proof.
Assist claims it never received Elizabeth's written requests that the company requires... but that her account was de-enrolled in December for failure to pay. She received a bill invoiced December 28th. And she says Assist never notified her the account was closed.
Assist's attorney wrote, "Based on this incident, assist will be developing a policy where account changes involving allegations of fraud are escalated and handled on a case-by-case basis."
"I think the whole program needs re-evaluated because this is a sham," Elizabeth said.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission doesn't run the Lifeline program. The FCC does. But when FOX23 told the OCC about Elizabeth's complaint, it opened an investigation.
Matt Skinner, spokesperson for the OCC, said the majority of complaints are either cases of stolen identity or about the phones themselves.
"The phone doesn't work, and they don't even know who to contact to reestablish service," Skinner said.
The OCC sent FOX23's November story to the FCC, using it to get the answer to the question they'd been asking for months.
"We know now very clearly that we have the authority to remove the designation to access the hundreds of millions that are flowing through that program," Skinner said.
That means the OCC can stop companies from getting federal money if they don't follow the rules.
"There's nothing we have found in the review that would give us reason to stop the review," Skinner said.
As for Elizabeth, Skinner says her case is closed.
This week, Assist Wireless agreed to shut off the phone and stop sending her bills.
If you're getting a bill for a phone you didn't sign up for, Skinner says your problem won't just go away. Resist the urge to throw away the bills.
Instead report your complaint to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and the Federal Corporation Commission.
You can call (405)521-2211. Or file your complaint online at www.occeweb.com
. Click on the "complaint" tab.
Senator Tom Coburn put the Lifeline program at number 12 on his Wastebook, his list of 100 government programs that he considers wasteful spending, which came out in October.
Coburn emailed FOX23 this statement:
"It is troubling responsible cell phone users are paying over $1.5 billion annually for Lifeline, which grew to provide 16.5 million people with free phones in 2012. Considering that these are not essential services, along with the numerous reports of waste and abuse within the program, I am hopeful Congress will consider how to phase out Lifeline."
Because of admitted abuse and waste, the FCC overhauled the Lifeline program last January. Since the reforms, it reports saving more than $200 million. The FCC says consumers who lie on applications may be kicked out of the program, fined or face prison time. The FCC also says it is actively investigating several cell phone companies. The FCC encourages people to report fraud.
Consumers who are victim of or are aware of Lifeline fraud should call the Enforcement Bureau's dedicated Lifeline Fraud Tip Line at 1-855-4LL-TIPS (1-855-455-8477) or email Lifelinetips@fcc.gov.
Read in full FOX23's questions to Assist Wireless and its attorney's answers below:
FOX23: In Elizabeth Johnson’s case, how was someone able to get a phone in her name?
ATTORNEY: Assist has an application/Lifeline certification form for Ms. Johnson (or, if Ms. Johnson’s allegations are correct, someone who claimed to be Ms. Johnson). The form was signed and dated on May 11, 2011. A copy of the application has been provided on a confidential basis to the OCC. Due to the personal information on the form, Assist cannot disclose the form publicly. At the time, Lifeline program rules required eligible telecommunications companies to accept consumer self-certifications of eligibility. Proof of identity or eligibility were not FCC requirements at that time, but Assist did require its agents to check both and to certify that they did. Ms. Johnson’s form contains the agent certification indicating compliance with Company policy.
FOX23: Are there safeguards in place to make sure people have proof of identity and proof of assistance?
ATTORNEY: Yes. Assist requires both proof of identity and proof of eligibility. Assist recently has implemented additional safeguards requiring electronic photo-capture of both forms of proof. This process enables Assist to perform compliance checks before enrolling consumers in Lifeline. Consistent with FCC rules, proof of eligibility documentation is destroyed.
FOX23: What is Assist Wireless doing to make sure this type of mistake doesn’t happen in the future?
ATTORNEY: Assist has implemented the most recent FCC Lifeline program reforms which are designed to minimize waste, fraud and abuse. Assist also goes further than the rules require by doing such things as requiring a photo ID as a precondition to enrollment and by photo-capturing that and proof of eligibility at time of enrollment.
FOX23: Elizabeth thinks Assist Wireless has continued to send her bills and ignored her requests because Assist wanted to continue collecting from the Lifeline program. What is your response?
ATTORNEY: Assist did not ignore Ms. Johnson’s request (please see our response to your next question below). Ms. Johnson’s account was de-enrolled from Lifeline in December 2012 for failure to pay. Assist is a committed partner with the FCC and the OCC in fighting waste, fraud and abuse so that the Lifeline program serves its intended purpose of enabling low-income Americans stay connected to job opportunities, family, healthcare and emergency services, and other community services. Although Assist cannot be certain whether this was a case of consumer fraud or any other kind, Assist will return all Lifeline disbursements associated with Ms. Johnson’s account to the federal Universal Service Fund.
FOX23: Why did it take 10 months and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission getting involved for Assist to take action in Elizabeth’s case?
ATTORNEY: It didn’t – Ms. Johnson was enrolled and de-enrolled in approximately 6 months. She was de-enrolled before the Company was contacted by the OCC regarding her complaint. At the time Ms. Johnson enrolled (or was enrolled), Assist’s policy was to require requests for service cancellation to be in writing. That policy was designed to prevent instances where someone other than the enrollee requesting service cancellation (e.g., in the aftermath of a domestic dispute or simply as a prank). Assist’s files indicate that Ms. Johnson called to cancel her account several times between May and July and was informed that such account changes could be done only pursuant to a written request. Assist has no record of having received a written request for account cancellation from Ms. Johnson. Assist’s current policy is to require customers to verify account and personal information prior to making an account change such as cancellation. In cases where account information cannot be verified, a written request is required. Based on this incident, Assist will be developing a policy where account changes involving allegations of fraud are escalated and handled on a case-by-case basis.