The 'Obamaphone' program is still a mess

As CBS News in Denver is careful to note, it’s not really fair to refer to the amazingly foolish and corrupt “Lifeline” program – free cell phones for Food Stamp Nation – as “Obamaphones,” because the program existed long before the current presidency began.  People use that term because a very agitated Obama supporter referred to them as such during the 2012 campaign, apparently under the impression that free cell phones were a personal gift from the Oval Office. Based on anecdotal evidence, I think the term has spread far beyond those who actually saw the “Obamaphone Lady” viral video, and even those who follow politics closely.  As one who thinks this program should be killed with fire, and who is not generally an admirer of this President’s works, I’ve always thought it was unfair to call them “Obamaphones,” and it might even be counter-productive, because this dopey excrescence of the welfare state is still going to be wasting tons of money long after he’s gone.

The “Obamaphone Lady” viral sensation was the first time many people had heard of Lifeline.  They were thunderstruck to discover that each and every paying cell phone customer is indeed forking over a surcharge to finance “free” cell phones.  Furthermore, the program is positively riddled with fraud and abuse; there are people walking around with four or five of these taxpayer-financed phones in their pockets.  Following the public outcry in 2012, assurances were given that dramatic reforms would be implemented to cut down on abuse.

How’s that going?  Not so great, at least not in Denver:

The program has strict guidelines. To qualify, you have to be on food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance or some other government program to prove that you are low-income. The idea is that people who could not otherwise afford mobile phones would have them to help look for jobs, call 911 in an emergency or stay in touch with family members.

But on multiple trips to Colfax Avenue and Broadway in Denver, where multiple distributors set up their tents to hand out free cellphones, a CBS4 producer and reporter found the phone agents willing to circumvent strict government rules designed to ensure that only the truly needy get the free phones. The vendors receive massive government subsidies to hand out the phones and the accompanying monthly plans.

“Want to sign up for a free phone?” an agent representing Total Call mobile asked a CBS4 producer. The representative then asked if the undercover producer had a food stamp card, a Medicaid card or any other evidence that he qualified for a phone.

“No,” replied the CBS4 employee. But one of the cellphone agents then ordered his colleague to “push it through,” by using someone else’s food stamp card to provide eligibility for the CBS4 employee.

“Did you just use that guy’s food stamp card for me?” questioned the CBS4 employee.

“Yeah,” responded the Total Call representative. “It’s verification that you are on some kind of assistance program. It’s to get you through.”

He promptly gave the CBS4 worker a free phone. The Total Call agent said he received $3 for every phone he is able to give away.

Mark Wigfield, Deputy Director of media relations for the FCC, which oversees the Lifeline program, said using someone else’s food stamp card to get a phone is a clear violation of program guidelines.

“Lifeline providers may not activate service for a consumer unless that consumer is eligible for the program and provides proof of eligibility. Lifeline rules,” said Wigfield, “are enforceable rules and punishable by fines and other means.”

But over and over, wireless phone company representatives proved eager to bypass federal rules so they could hand out phones.

People abuse the hell out of ridiculous government giveaways, especially when the contractors have financial incentives to help them commit fraud?  Color me shocked.  Who could have seen that coming?

There are more tales of abuse chronicled in the CBS Denver article, plus more testimony from beneficiaries of the program that they are indeed known as “Obamaphones” far and wide:

But the abuse appears to be occurring on the part of phone recipients of the free phones as well. Over and over, men and women who obtained the free phones told CBS4 they were already paying for iPhones or smartphones but couldn’t resist getting a free phone, courtesy of taxpayers.

One man told CBS4 he wanted a free cellphone but did not have a food stamp card and did not qualify. He showed CBS4 his current smartphone that he said he was paying $57 a month for. But he explained that he went across town, got a food stamp card anyway, then returned to Civic Center with a food stamp card that has no money on it, but was still able to use it to qualify for an “Obamaphone.”

“Completely free. I didn’t pay a dollar, not a dime, not a nickel,” said the man. “That’s what everybody calls them in the ‘hood, Obamaphone,” laughed the man.

Apparently the only trick that didn’t work was printing a dummy food stamp card on paper off the Internet, with “TRAINING CARD” printed as the name of the beneficiary.  An agent at one of the free phone tents obligingly tried to get Mr. Training Card a free phone anyway, but the system actually rejected that application, so at least we know there’s a theoretical limit to how stupid this obscene raid on taxpayers can get.

Reportedly the FCC has dished out $95 million in fines against misbehaving phone providers… and this crap is still going on.  The Lifeline program originally began as an effort to wire the homes of the desperately poor for landline phones so they could look for jobs or summon emergency services.  Turning it into a cell-phone giveaway was absurd, and the results were entirely predictable.