Total Call Mobile threatened with $51m fine from FCC

11 April 2016 | Jason McGee-Abe


California-headquartered Total Call Mobile has been threatened with a fine for allegedly overbilling 'ineligible' customers on its Lifeline programme.

The Federal Communications Commission has announced a fine on Total Call Mobile $51,070,322 for allegedly enrolling tens of thousands of duplicate and ineligible consumers into the Lifeline programme.

This programme provides discounted phone service to low income consumers so that they do not lose essential communications links to potential employers, family, and emergency services.

Total Call Mobile stands accused of enrolling tens of thousands of duplicate and ineligible consumers into the Lifeline programme.

The Commission alleges that since 2014, Total Call received approximately $9.7m dollars in improper payments from the Universal Service Fund for duplicate or ineligible consumers. The FCC said that the company did this despite repeated and explicit warnings from its own employees, in some cases compliance specialists, that company sales agents were engaged in widespread enrolment fraud. 

According to strict guidelines Lifeline providers are required to ensure their employees do not commit fraud within the programme. This is the largest fine that the Commission has ever proposed against a Lifeline provider. Travis LeBlanc, Enforcement Bureau Chief said: “We reserve the strongest sanctions for those who defraud or abuse federal programme. 

“Any waste, fraud, or abuse in the Lifeline programme diverts scarce funds from the consumers they are meant to serve and undermines the public’s trust in the programme and its stewardship.”

The Enforcement Bureau’s Universal Service Fund Strike Force conducted the investigation Total Call, which provides Lifeline services in at least 19 states and territories.

They found: 

• Total Call sales agents enrolled tens of thousands of duplicate consumers;
• Total Call was aware of a systematic problem of duplicate enrolments in November 2013, a full year before the Universal Service Fund administrator raised the issue with the company;
• During the fourth quarter of 2014, 99.8% of Total Call’s enrolments nationwide involved overriding the third-party verification system designed to catch duplicate enrolments;
• As early as May 2014, employees told Total Call management that they were aware of increasing instances of eligibility fraud, such as the repeated use of single Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards with no name or other identifying information to enrol ineligible or duplicate or multiple consumers. Despite this, no meaningful changes to employee training or verification procedures were made; and
• One sales agent used the identification from a stolen wallet to register 10 Lifeline cell phones in the name of the wallet’s owner without his/her permission. When that agent was arrested and charged with identity theft, he/she possessed not only the wallet but 12 additional Total Call-issued Lifeline cell phones.