An increasingly popular telephone number in Washington is (800) 424-5454. This is the General Accounting Office's toll-free ''hot line'' to report fraud, waste, and abuse in the federal government. Callers may remain anonymous, whether they are government-employed ''whistle-blowers'' or simply concerned taxpayers who have observed mismanagement or intentional wrongdoing in government.
Calls have come regarding all departments and agencies of government, but the largest group has been related to social programs administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. This is followed by the Defense Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Labor Department.
After weeding out the ''cranks'' and unfounded calls, the GAO typically refers the information to one of the 17 inspectors general or the Justice Department for investigation and prosecution. Some examples of recent cases:
* A Small Business Administration loan of $150,000 was made to individuals intending to buy an auto dealership. They sold the dealership immediately after receiving the loan and bought a new motel and restaurant business, but failed to repay the balance of the SBA loan. The US attorney obtained a civil judgment for
* A caller alleged collusion between federal officials and housing inspectors to certify an apartment complex as meeting certain building codes. The investigation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development inspector general did not prove collusion, but revealed design and construction deficiencies. The design and supervisory architect was barred from the further HUD contracts for 12 months.
* A public school system was found to have charged some $20,000 in inappropriate expenses to a federal grant. The Department of Education grant was reduced by this amount, but no disciplinary action was taken since it had been a matter of misunderstanding and not willful wrongdoing.
* A recipient of welfare and food stamps was found to have been working while receiving an overpayment totaling $1,138. The payment was stopped and the possibility of criminal prosecution is being investigated.
The 17 inspectors general now have ''hot lines'' as well, but the GAO has the only nationwide toll-free number.