Cook County inmates charged in $50K phone scam

CHICAGO (AP) — Twenty Cook County Jail inmates accused of letting their fingers do some illegal walking with the telephone are now in even more trouble.

An alleged scam in which inmates placed collect calls to random numbers all over the United States and Canada and pretended to be police officers resulted in about $50,000 in illegal phone calls over five months, the county sheriff’s department said Monday.

Eighteen inmates were charged with felony impersonating a police officer, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Two face a misdemeanor count of the same charge, officials said.

The scam is the largest of its kind the jail has ever uncovered, but the illegal use of jail phones is a problem around the country, said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

According to the sheriff’s department, the alleged scam worked like this: Inmates placed collect calls, identified themselves as police officers and told people who answered that a loved one had been in a traffic accident.

The “police officers” who were actually inmates instructed people to telephone a “supervisor” at the scene of the accident. The contact numbers began either with 72 or 1172, followed by a telephone number that actually belonged to acquaintances of an inmate outside the jail.

Once victims did that, their phone numbers were effectively “hijacked,” meaning the inmates could make calls without paying.

“They’re then calling other people, usually friends, family and fellow gang members,” Dart said.

Victims would not know something was wrong until they tried to use their phones again, at which time they heard clicking sounds and beeping, Dart said.

The inmates – who were in jail on a host of crimes, including first-degree murder, kidnapping and armed robbery – could make calls charged to the victims’ phones until the victims alerted the phone company, “and then the phone company could undo the call forwarding,” said department spokeswoman Penny Mateck.

Inmates allegedly made thousands of calls, with 4,700 calls placed to the Las Vegas area in one 3-day period alone, Mateck said.

Most people did not do as the inmates had instructed them, officials said. But some people did as they were told, including an 11-year-old boy in Las Vegas and an 85-year-old woman in Texas with a heart condition who tearfully begged the “officer” to tell her that her loved one had not been killed.

Dart said the investigation continued and may result in charges filed against inmates’ acquaintances if authorities could show they knowingly took part in the scam.

It may be tougher get away with telephone scams in the future, at least in Cook County, where a new system was installed.

Among other things, it includes a recorded message stating: “This is a collect call from an inmate at the Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago, Illinois. Be aware of unlawful solicitation or deceptive practices.”



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