Party Lines

How the government calls on your dime


For a big government agency, the Department of Agriculture has a decidedly laissez-faire attitude toward telephone use. Indeed, according to a recent General Accounting Office report on telephone abuse and fraud at the USDA, the department, like a number of other government agencies, doesn't even review its bills.

Since the USDA has no idea how many unauthorized long-distance calls are made from its offices, abuse of the system goes largely unchecked. In a review of just a few of the department's phone bills, the GAO found several cases in which employees placed overseas calls to adult "chat" lines in such exotic locales as the Dominican Republic.

Employee abuse also turns the agency into a free telephone-relay station: During a four-month period, over half of the roughly 1,200 collect calls USDA employees accepted were fraudulent calls placed by prisoners. Accomplices inside the department patch the calls through to long-distance lines, and the department gets stuck with the tab, reports the GAO. "USDA has been aware of cases of collect calling abuse since 1994, but has not taken adequate action to stop it," says the report.

The USDA is slow to act even when the fraud is an outside job. In one instance, computer hackers infiltrated its phone banks and made between $40,000 and $50,000 worth of international long-distance calls. Although the contractor who installed the agency's voice-mail system acknowledged responsibility for the system's vulnerability, the USDA did not bother to seek reimbursement for the cost of the fraudulent calls.

Perhaps the USDA can take heart (and taxpayers heartburn medication) in that it is hardly the only government agency with lax phone security: The Drug Enforcement Administration, for example, doesn't bother to review its phone bills either. Over a period of 18 months, the DEA paid more than $2 million for fraudulent calls placed by hackers.