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Jailhouse scam is just a phone call away

Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Matthew Walberg

Maymie Anderson was sitting in her Texas home last month watching Oprah when the phone rang and the caller, identifying himself as Sgt. Thomas, had startling news: Someone she loved had been in a car accident.

Sgt. Thomas said she needed to call a phone number for more information. Anderson slumped to the floor of her living room.

"Oh . . . oh . . . I have a bad heart," Anderson, 63, said in an anguished voice.

Anderson was a victim of one of Cook County Jail's time-honored scams—inmates hijacking phone lines to make collect calls at victims' expense.
Authorities alleged that in this case Sgt. Thomas turned out to be Markez Ellis, 26, who is awaiting trial for first-degree murder. He is now also charged with impersonating a police officer.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart on Monday disclosed similar charges against 19 other inmates—many of them also facing charges of murder or other violent crimes.

In the phone scam, Dart said, inmates typically pose as a police officer and instruct the victims to call another telephone number—with a special prefix—for further information on their loved one at the accident scene. But by making that call, victims just let their phone line be hijacked by a friend of the inmate who can then hook up three-way calls for the inmate while the victims are frantically trying to figure out if loved ones were injured or killed.

Since June, the 20 inmates made more than a combined $50,000 in collect calls through the scam, Dart said.

A new phone system more clearly notifies those being called collect from jail that the call is coming from an inmate.

The worst part of the scam is the emotional toll inflicted on victims, Dart said.

Anderson was bilked out of $60 in fraudulent collect calls, but she said the stress of the ordeal aggravated her heart condition, causing chest pains, nausea and lightheadedness.

"I tell you, I just went to pieces," she said. "I almost had a heart attack."

She figured Sgt. Thomas was referring to her grandson, so she and other family members tried to call him to make sure he was alive.

"We called his cell number, and we didn't get an answer," Anderson said. "And then we really panicked."

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