Arkansas congressman wants to wipe out free cell phones

Funding for a government regulated free cell phone program continues to rise and it's being added on to your bill.

A bill by Arkansas Congressman Tim Griffin would change the Lifeline program back to providing land lines only after its users increased by more than 110 percent over the past three years. One year, it even increased by more than 200 percent.

"There wasn't a lot of abuse when it was simply land lines because folks aren't trying to get 10, 20 or 30 land lines," said Representative Griffin from Washington, D.C.

It's a number that continues to grow - especially in Arkansas.

"There's so many people out there with these nice iPhones and the nicest Samsung phone you can buy, which is $700, and they're getting it for $20 a month from the government," said Austin Crook from Pine Bluff. "When I work 50 hours a week just to pay for my bills."

Crook said he knows all too well about the program as a former employee with a mobile phone company. He said other customers are footing the cost for the program through a fee for "universal cellular" that appears on your monthly bill ranging anywhere from $3 to $10.

When cell phones were first added to the program under the Bush administration in 2008, nearly $3 million was spent for phones just in Arkansas. That number has since risen to about $57 million in 2012 alone. According to Sen. Mark Pryor's office, the program now costs nearly $2.2 billion and nearly half of current Lifelinerecipients have not been properly certified to participate.

Some, though, argue that the money has been well spent.

"I am legally disabled and I am on a limited income and this is the only type of phone that I have," said Shanna Pletka of Little Rock.

Pletka said she's used the program since 2008 and to take it away would cut off all her communication.

"They're not thinking of everybody, I don't believe they are. Everybody has to have a story."

Rep. Griffin said he doesn't believe Lifeline's reputation stands as tall as its growing costs.

"This is an example of an area where there's been a lot of waste, fraud and abuse," he added.

One example Griffin gave from right here in central Arkansas was a free phone being sent to a dead person, and even cases of people getting multiple free phones.

The Wall Street Journal called out the system in articles entitled "Millions Improperly Claimed U.S. Phone Subsidies," and "Abuse Worries Grow on Phone Aid for Poor."

According to Griffin's office, the congressman has around 30 co-sponsors for his bill.

The FCC said it has started cracking down on multiple phone users. In February, they announced new eligibility databases and restrictions on wireless carriers they said would save the program nearly $2 billion over three years. A month later, that database showing who all is using the system had not yet been made.

After our story originally aired Wednesday, Sen. Pryor's office announced on Thursday that he, as chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, sent a letter to the FCC asking them to take additional steps to stop the growth of the program, such as curbing participation of prepaid wireless providers, placing a hard cap on the amount of funding and conducting a more thorough investigation of the program.