(KMOV) – News 4 continues to dig into an exploding government program that’s been riddled with fraud and abuse: free cell phone service provided by the government.
Blind and living off Social Security, Bethalto resident Theresa Hale qualifies for the government-funded cell phone service.
But she insists she never ordered one or gave anyone permission to sign her up to the program, but she got one anyway.
“I don’t want someone making money off my poverty, sorry it’s just not right,” said Hale.
She received the cell phone from Ptel, or Platinumtel Communications, which is based just outside of Chicago.
Hale said she’s never heard of the company and has no idea how they got her name and address.
According to federal records, Ptel has collected a whopping $23 million in federal funds since June of 2011.
Since Hale’s phone came from them, News 4’s Chris Nagus went looking for the CEO, Omar Ahmad.
But when Chris Nagus arrived at the business, a manager told him he had to leave threatened to call police.
So Nagus went to Ahmed’s home, which appeared abandoned. Neighbors said they haven’t seen him in awhile.
Back in Bethalto, Hale is familiar with the government-sponsored cell phone program and the problems we have revealed.
Ptel has been a big part of the problem in Illinois.
The FCC’s own review nailed the company for more than 28,000 duplicate phones in Illinois alone.
But not only does the company continue to collect close to $1 million a month in federal funding off the program, they’re asking the FCC to expand to nine more states plus Washington D.C.
According to an email from Ptel, Hale or someone with her personal information signed up and say they have the last four digits of her Social Security number on file.
Hale’s son has a free government phone but he says it’s with a different carrier, not Ptel.
Ptel said Hale can return the phone, and if she doesn’t use it the government won’t be billed.
The FCC told News 4 a central database to root out duplicate orders would be in place by early 2013. That hasn’t happened yet and now they’re saying it should by the end of this year.
They say their state-by-state examination of subscriber rolls has already rooted out 1.5 million duplicates and by 2014 reforms will save a projected $2 billion. The FCC sent News 4 the following statement about fraud in the Lifeline program:
“The FCC’s comprehensive reforms to the Lifeline program saved over $200 million in 2012 alone and are on track to save more than $2 billion by 2014. These reforms significantly tightened the process for verifying the initial and ongoing eligibility of consumers who wish to participate. Consumers must document proof of eligibility at enrollment, and recertify annually their continued eligibility for support. In addition, while we prepare to launch our subscriber database by the end of the year, we are continuing our state-by-state examination of subscriber rolls. That process has already eliminated 1.5 million duplicate subscriptions. We also toughened rules governing marketing and advertising by carriers, and have established a robust audit requirement for providers entering the Lifeline program as well as an ongoing independent audit requirement for providers drawing more than $5 million from the Fund. We take any violation of our rules seriously.”