At homeless shelter, Lifeline phone program's approval process raises concerns

Concerns surround Lifeline provider TerraCom Inc.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Quantrell Ross slipped into a world of rescue missions and daytime homeless shelters two years ago, when he longer could make ends meet by cutting grass and painting.

The soft-spoken 33-year-old splits his time volunteering at a Milwaukee day center called Repairers of the Breach and looking for work as a handyman. "I want to get back on my feet," Ross said in an interview this summer. "I'm trying to improve my situation."

He's a prime candidate for Lifeline, the federal phone subsidy intended to ensure that low-income Americans can access jobs and social services.

Ross said he intended to apply last fall when an agent for TerraCom Inc., a Lifeline provider, set up a promotional booth in the shelter. The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees Lifeline, last year approved "those living in shelters to sign up" for the program. Lifeline sales agents also frequently market the program around flea markets, soup kitchens and government benefits offices.

Ross said the agent approved him on the spot and said his phone soon would arrive in the mail. It never did, he said.

However, a Lifeline application in Ross' name was posted online this year. After a Scripps reporter asked Ross to review it, he said someone else signed and initialed his name.

Like Ross, five others who frequent Repairers of the Breach said in interviews that they'd intended to apply to Lifeline but hadn't previously seen or signed the TerraCom applications in their names.

"It's a false signature," Ross said. "Is there anything that's going to be done about this?"

A diverse group -- ranging from the largest Lifeline provider to a coalition of advocates for low-income Americans -- wants the government to ban the aggressive and widespread practice of approving Lifeline service and distributing phones on the spot.

In a May filing with the FCC, TracFone Wireless requested the new rule, saying instant approval and phone distribution "invites fraud."

Consumer and low-income advocates agree. John Breyault, vice president of public policy for National Consumers League, said in an August press conference that same-day distribution enables "bad actors" to defraud Lifeline.

TerraCom has said scant evidence links same-day approvals to fraud. In July, TerraCom terminated its entire national Lifeline sales staff, which often enrolled customers through an on-the-spot approval process, according to the company and former sales agents.

Jeffrey Lenon, another shelter volunteer, said he intended to apply to Lifeline but never completed any forms . After Lenon provided his Social Security number and food stamp card to a TerraCom agent, he was immediately approved and informed that a phone would arrive in about a week. It never came.

Shown three TerraCom applications bearing his personal information, Lenon pointed out that his first name had been misspelled and said he'd never seen the forms before. "Somebody needs to investigate and put a stop to this."

(Email reporter Isaac Wolf at

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