USDA Telecommunications:

More Effort Needed to Address Telephone Abuse and Fraud

AIMD-96-59: Published: Apr 16, 1996. Publicly Released: Apr 16, 1996.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) use of its telecommunications resources, focusing on: (1) whether USDA ensures that the commercial telephone and long-distance services it pays for are used in accordance with federal regulations and departmental policy; and (2) USDA efforts to address recommendations from a previous GAO report.

GAO found that: (1) during the 4-month period reviewed, collect calls from federal, state, and county correctional institutions were accepted at 20 USDA offices in the District of Columbia area and may have been transferred to USDA long-distance lines; (2) these collect calls amounted to 50 percent of the collect calls accepted at these USDA offices and cost about $2,600; (3) despite the discovery of inappropriately accepted collect calls as early as 1993, USDA did not initiate adequate measures to stop the abuses; (4) USDA offices in the District area made unauthorized long-distance calls, including international calls to adult entertainment lines and companies advertising jobs; (5) such fraud and abuse exist because USDA does not review its commercial telephone bills; (6) despite some positive actions to control fraud and abuse, USDA has not responded to GAO recommendations concerning the inappropriate use of its telecommunications resources; and (7) USDA is vulnerable to more fraud, waste, and abuse because it does not review its telephone and telephone credit card bills.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA prepared a statement of actions that was signed by the Secretary on May 5, 1996, and provided to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should, in accordance with 31 U.S.C. 720, provide a written statement on actions taken on recommendations contained in the prior report, USDA Telecommunications: Better Management and Network Planning Could Save Millions (GAO/AIMD-95-203), to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight. A written statement must also be sent to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to USDA, it conducted a review of billing records for the period in question to identify MCI and Sprint long-distance charges associated with the March 1995 hacker incident. A total of $1,602.94 in charges paid by USDA were identified along with pending charges of $20,959.82. Payments for the pending charges were stopped and USDA received reimbursement for the remaining charges from MCI and Sprint.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct that billing records be reviewed to identify all long-distance and other service charges associated with the March 1995 hacker incident and expeditiously seek restitution for these amounts from the contractor responsible for the defective voice mail equipment that led to these charges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On April 29, 1996, USDA and Bell Atlantic provided agency telecommunications managers information on telephone abuse, methods to prevent this abuse, and actions that should be taken if abuse is suspected. Agencies were asked to review their bills for collect calls and provide summary findings on the total number of collect calls, total number of unauthorized collect calls, total number of calls turned over for investigation, and total number of employees disciplined for unauthorized calls. Cases of suspected abuse are referred to supervisors for appropriate disciplinary action and, where cost-effective, remedial action is also taken to recover costs.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Assistant Secretary for Administration and the Chief Financial Officer, in cooperation with the Under Secretaries and the Office of Inspector General, to take appropriate disciplinary actions against employees involved in the telabuse cases GAO identified to ensure that these abuses are stopped immediately and recover losses where it is cost-effective to do so.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA began blocking collect calls in all of its Washington, D.C., area offices in October 1996, and has significantly reduced hundreds of inappropriate collect calls from individuals in correctional institutions. Also, through OCIO implementation of procedures for obtaining and reviewing the local carrier's monthly telephone bill for the Washington, D.C., area, questionable long distance calls, as well as other potentially inappropriate charges, have been identified and eliminated.

    Recommendation: In the interim, the Department of Agriculture should identify and implement actions necessary, but at the same time cost-effective, to minimize USDA's exposure to telephone abuse. Alternatives that USDA might consider could include blocking collect calls to USDA, notifying commercial carriers to cancel all telephone company credit cards issued to USDA personnel, and identifying methods that other large organizations employ to combat telephone abuse and fraud.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA agreed with the recommendation and has taken action to implement it. For example, in March 1999, USDA revised department regulations prohibiting collect calls and in March 2000, USDA also said it had developed a plan to implement a department wide telephone Incident Reporting and Response procedure. Moreover, in September 2000, USDA OCIO provided information it obtained from agencies indicating that they monitor and review billing for fraud and abuse and are taking steps to analyze services bills to identify waste, inefficiencies, overreacher, and charges for lines or services no longer used.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Assistant Secretary for Administration and the Chief Financial Officer, in cooperation with the Under Secretaries and the Office of the Inspector General, to determine the risk of and vulnerability to telephone fraud, waste, and abuse departmentwide, develop an appropriate plan with cost-effective controls to mitigate these risks, and expeditiously implement this plan. In developing this plan, among other things the department should consider determining whether there is a need to continue to accept collect calls and, if deemed necessary, evaluate the viability and cost-effectiveness of alternatives to collect calls such as offering toll free numbers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its fiscal year 1997 Federal Manager's Financial Integrity Act (FMFIA) report, USDA identified telephone abuse at the department as a material management control weakness and described actions being taken to address this weakness.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should provide the appropriate congressional oversight committees with a report on planned USDA actions to correct its telecommunications management weaknesses and mitigate the risk of telephone fraud, waste, and abuse.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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