Phone carriers expose low-income applicants to risk of ID theft
By ISAAC WOLF, Scripps News
Last fall, when Linda Mendez was offered discount phone service through a federal program for the poor, the San Antonio mom thought it was too good to be true. She signed up anyway.
Mendez, 51, works the graveyard shift at a university gym, where she keeps the building clean and stocked with towels. She uses many of her cellphone's allotted 250 minutes each month to call the family's modest house in the evening while she's at work, checking on her husband and four young children.
Are you ready for bed?
Mendez's phone also comes in handy during the day. After getting off work at 5 a.m., Mendez prepares her kids for school. She sleeps for several hours and then attends to household chores, picks up her children and stays on top of their appointments. That's particularly important for Mendez because her 11-year-old daughter, Denise, has Down syndrome.
"I'm always telling my husband, 'where's my phone?'" she said, adding that it also helps her stay in touch with her three adult children and 13 grandchildren.
"I need it because something's usually happening."
For all the convenience afforded by Lifeline, the federal program that subsidizes phone service for qualified low-income households, Mendez now says her initial doubts were justified.
Her nine-digit Social Security number, her birth date, home address and the most sensitive details about her family's finances were available to anyone doing an online search this spring. Tens of thousands of Lifeline applicants, including Mendez, were exposed to the risk of identity theft by the phone carriers that signed them up for the program and were supposed to keep their information safe.
More: Privacy on the line
A Scripps News reporter discovers documents that contain personal information of Lifeline applicants.
Reforms were introduced to the Lifeline program last year, but even with -- and perhaps because of -- the stricter requirements, tens of thousands of families are at risk of identity theft.
Tens of thousands of applicants to the Lifeline federal phone subsidy have been placed at heightened risk for identity theft. Here are tips for what concerned applicants or clients can do to protect themselves.
How we got the story:
While looking into companies participating in the Lifeline program, The Scripps News investigative team discovered more than 170,000 records posted online listing sensitive information of customers and applicants.