UPDATED: Slammer scammers

By Andy Wise - bio | email

BREAKING NEWS:  Since this Action News 5 investigation first aired Feb. 10, 110 consumers have called the Shelby County Sheriff's Office to have their phone numbers blocked from inmate collect calls.

"What you all have done with this is just amazing," said Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell, commenting on the impact of our investigation. "It has been a tremendous help to us."

To have your land-line or cell number blocked, call the number at the end of this web story. 

If you are receiving inmate calls from other counties or states, please call their respective sheriff's departments or state police forces.

MEMPHIS (WMC TV) - Unsolicited collect calls from prisoners in the Shelby County jail could be attempts to steal your phone service, according to an Action News 5 investigation.

In one month, three women -- two from Cordova, TN -- received one or more calls with automated messages identifying the caller as a Shelby County inmate. None of the women have any connection to a Shelby County prisoner.

"It would give you an 800 number to call to finish the process, but when you called the 800 number, it started asking for all this information about your phone number, and everything else," said Ann Turpin, who received four inmate calls. "I just hung up because it just all sounded so strange to me, and I thought this could be a scam."

With the women's permission, the Action News 5 Investigators turned their phone numbers over to the Shelby County Sheriff's Office in the hope that Global Tel*Link (http://www.gtl.net/), the Alabama-based contractor that provides and supports the inmate call service, could trace the calls.

Sheriff spokesperson Steve Shular said in each case, a "314" number that had nothing to do with the jail appeared. He said the inmates were likely using some sort of a third-party connection to conceal their identities.

"That's a clue right there that inmates were up to something," said Shular. "Exactly what, it'd be hard to speculate."

Hard to tell -- until the Action News 5 Investigators discovered what happened in Cook County, IL.

Christa Oody of Schaumburg, IL, got an inmate call from the Cook County Department of Corrections prison, whose system is neither designed nor supported by Global Tel*Link. It was an automated message that included an inmate's recorded first name, requesting a collect call.

The line went dead.

Seconds later, a live person - a third party - called her. The caller claimed to be a prison official.

He told her an inmate had listed Oody as an emergency contact, and for more information, please punch *72.

Confused and frightened, she punched the code. That 3-button code transferred control of her phone service to the inmate.

The inmate hijacked her service to make any calls, including long distance or international calls, and bill them to her account.

"I lost complete control of my phone," Oody said.

Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell said inmates have also been caught using the collect call system to conduct drug deals and commit credit card fraud, right from their cells.

"It could be any number, any one of those, probably all of them at one time or another," Luttrell said. "Sometimes, these are random phone calls. Sometimes, they are intentional phone calls."

Luttrell said despite numerous attempts by inmates to beat Global Tel*Link's Shelby County system, its security measures have always prevented local prisoners from stealing anyone's phone service.

"GTL uses a patented, industry-standard three-way call detection software program," said Dorothy E. Cukier, Global Tel*Link's corporate counsel, in an e-mail statement. "The software is designed to detect slight anomalies in the "tones" of a connected call, and disconnect a call if a suspect anomaly occurs that could signal an attempt to access a secondarily-dialed number."

Shular has offered his number, (901) 545-5532, to Shelby County residents who have received unsolicited and unwanted calls from prisoners.  He said he would coordinate with Global Tel*Link to insure their numbers are permanently blocked from inmate calls.

Shular successfully blocked the numbers of Turpin and the other women from future calls.  None of them accepted the original calls or followed any directions to punch a code.

"Once they start saying, 'If you would, punch this number' or 'Punch that number,' that should be a big flag," Shular said.

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