20 Cook Co. inmates charged in phone scam

November 24, 2008 4:11:58 PM PST
Twenty Cook County jail inmates have been charged with impersonating police officers in a telephone scam that allowed them to cheat people out of tens of thousands of dollars.The inmates would use innocent people's phone numbers to charge phone calls from the jail. The inmates would get the phone numbers by posing as police officers and telling the person on the other end of the phone that their loved ones were in a tragic accident.

It's a scam that has been used in jails across the country, and one the Cook County sheriff is hoping to end.

Behind the walls of the Cook County jail are thousands of inmates who have the legal right to use one the jail's 850 pay phones. Sheriff Tom Dart says 20 men allegedly used the phones in a scam that not only bilked innocent people out of money but also put them through a traumatic experience.

"When that phone call comes at odd hours, and all of sudden your heart drops, then you hear about horrific car accident. You can imagine what goes on in people's minds," Dart said.

The sheriff also says that is exactly what inmates did in a scam that hijacked innocent people's phone numbers. Dart says the inmates would place collect calls to random numbers around the country and pose as police officers.

"Hello, my name is Officer Smith. My reason for calling you, two people have just been involved in a tragic car accident," one person said in a phone recording made available to ABC7 Chicago.

The sheriff says posing as the officer in that phone call was inmate Antoine Simmons. On the other end of the phone was an 11-year-old boy.

In another case, inmate Marquez Ellis allegedly called an older woman in Texas with a heart condition. Tearfully, the woman begged the man, who she thought was an officer to tell her that her loved ones were not dead.

"Just tell me that they're ok. Are you there? Can you pray for me? Pray for them," the woman said during the call.

In all cases, the inmates would get people on the phone to call '*72' and another number, in order to get more information that would forward the innocent person's number to the inmates.

"By doing that, the inmates have basically hijacked people's phone numbers and run up phone charges over and over," said Dart.

Sheriff Dart says the inmates charged more than $50,000 in illegal phone calls in a five-month period.

Dart is hoping a new phone system at the jail will put an end to the scam. A collect call from the jail now includes a long introduction that specifically states the call is coming from an inmate.


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