“Some of these free phone programs are a scam, but not this one. It's totally free,” said Renae, a TAG Mobile employee who declined to give her last name.
Renae and Mike have been signing people up for free TAG Mobile cell phones since early summer.
“There's no activation fee or monthly bill. It's completely free,” she said.
Renae said the carrier for TAG Mobile is Verizon Wireless and they are registered with the Oklahoma Better Business Bureau.
A search on the Better Business Bureau website shows TAG Mobile is not BBB accredited. Further, the BBB website shows 45 complaints against the company in the last three years. Their BBB grade is listed as an F.
“That's why news people get frustrated when they find out it's us,” said Renae. “The only complaints filed against TAG Mobile were handled by the customer service department which people can contact at 1-866-959-4918 or by visiting the website at www.tagmobile.com.”
“I want to set up where people need it. There are people that are low income that need this service,” said Renae.
When asked how the free phones are made possible Renae and Mike said they are not sure but thought it could be because of “a government grant” or “because Oklahoma is tribal land.”
According to Time Magazine, last year alone a federal program paid out $1.6 billion to cover free cell phones and the monthly bill of 12.5 million wireless accounts. The funding arose from the 1996 Telecommunications Act which aimed to “promote the availability of quality services at just, reasonable and affordable rates,” among other things. A recent Forbes Magazine article explained that the program is funded by tax payers but not via federal income taxes.
The Act required that all telecommunication providers pay a percentage of their income to the fund. The phone carriers typically then pass the fee on to their customer.
“So that little fee on our cell phone bill labeled USF? That's what you're paying for,” according to the Forbes article. USF is the Universal Service Fund, created by the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1997 to meet Congressional universal service goals
The Verizon Wireless website shows it offers the LifeLine Program which is simply a discounted plan for qualified customers. This is not the same as the TAG Mobile program. The cost of this plan is listed as $33.99 per month for the Lifeline Plan or $19.99 for the Home Phone Connect plan.
Renae said the process is simple. Anyone receiving government assistance qualifies for the free cell phone program.
Renae said individuals must show proof they are receiving assistance, through official card or reward letter, in addition to a photo I.D.
She fills out the appropriate information on her computer and activates the phone. Once the phone has been issued Renae and Mike take a picture, using their cell phone, of the individuals identification and activated cell phone. The pictures, she says, are uploaded to her computer daily.
The recipient of the refurbished phone has 1,000 free minutes to use per month but can purchase additional minutes at CVS Pharmacies or Dollar General Stores.
“Government assistance includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Social Security Income, Federal Public Housing Assistance, free or reduced lunch program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Indian Affairs Assistance, Soonercare and Medicaid,” said Renae.
She said it's a great program that is “all about helping people that need it.” She admits many people try to abuse the program.
“The computer tells us if someone has already been issued a phone and we cannot give them an additional phone,” said Renae, who earns $2 per phone she issues but must pay $25 for any lost phone.
“We've seen people giving out two or three phones. If I give someone a duplicate phone it is considered lost and I have to pay $25 and can be charged with fraud and fined $25,000.” she said. “We've definitely had people try.”
In addition, Mike said it is also fraud to issue the phones to someone who does not meet the low income requirements.
“We try to do everything by the book,” said Renae, who is currently trying to get her peddler's license.
She said she was given permission to set up at her current location, across from the former Fisherman's Friend convenience store in Pryor, by the owner of the property.
“The mayor said yes, we could set up here, but we had to have written permission, which the property owner was happy to get to him,” said Renae. “The mayor has been very accommodating in working with us.”