by Amy Hebert, Consumer Education Specialist, FTC
You walk out of a VA facility, and see a booth with people offering free phones and cell service for veterans, all thanks to a government program. It sounds compelling, right?
“Free” might end up costing you a lot of money. The FTC has heard about booths like these — and what happens next. Months later, veterans who signed up for the program get notices saying they need to provide personal information and documents to prove they meet the income requirements — something the people pitching the program never mentioned. Many veterans find that their incomes are too high to qualify for the program, and face losing service or paying for something they thought would be free.
Here are the facts: there is a government program — called Lifeline — that offers free or discounted phone service. It’s supported by the Universal Service Fund — a fund all telephone companies and other telecommunications providers pay into (a cost you might see passed on to you in the form of a “Universal Service” line charge on your phone bill). But the program is based on income, not whether you’re a veteran. If you don’t meet the income requirements, you don’t qualify.
To learn more about the Lifeline program, check out the FCC’s Lifeline: Affordable Telephone Service for Income-Eligible Subscribers.
Think you might be eligible for the program? Go to lifelinesupport.org and use the pre-screening tool from the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) to see if you might qualify for a free phone. The site also lets you search for Lifeline providers in your state.
Even if you don’t qualify, try checking with your phone service provider to see if they offer any discounts for veterans.
For information on the Universal Lifeline Telephone Program, please visit the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) webpage at http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/PUC/Telco/Public+Programs/universallifeline.htm, where you can learn how to save on either your home or cell phone service through California Lifeline or your cell phone service through federal Lifeline. Please remember that participation in the Lifeline Program is either state or federal.
For more information on how to protect yourself and your loved ones against telephone scams and how to save money, please visit the CPUC’s webpage on “Telephone: Consumer Information Center” at http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/PUC/CEC/z_cpucconsumers/b_telco.htm.
For complaints or problems related to California LifeLine, please contact the CPUC’s Consumer Affairs Branch at 1-800-649-7570.