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Reach Out and Defraud Someone: Oregon Jail Prisoners Commit Phone Scams

A fifteen-minute collect call from the Multnomah County jail in Portland, Oregon costs $2.35, billed to the party who accepts the call. Between May 2006 and April 2009 those calls generated $3.5 million in revenue for the jail’s phone service provider, Texas-based Securus Technologies, Inc., while the county’s 38% kickback totaled $1.3 million. Profits likely would have been higher were it not for a handful of prisoners who made free collect calls from the jail.

The first prisoner caught offering a little competition to what county officials thought was a monopoly on the jail’s phone system was Shawn “Sammy Straight Razor” McGinnis. Between December 2006 and October 2007, McGinnis called his parents collect from the jail and they would make three-way connections to Qwest Communications, according to sheriff’s deputy Jose M. Torres.

McGinnis claimed to be a small business owner – a landscaper, a window washer or the owner of a cleaning supply company – and said he needed special business lines for each of his 14 employees. He gave Qwest the “profiles” – names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth – of 14 identity theft victims, plus a billing address. After Qwest issued the business lines, McGinnis had them forwarded to the phone number of a fellow prisoner’s family or friend.

To avoid the jail phone system’s 15 minute cut-off, McGinnis sometimes had a friend on the three-way call to Qwest finish setting up the additional lines on his behalf. “And Qwest was falling for it lock, stock and barrel,” said Torres. In fact, one of the billing addresses provided by McGinnis was a Qwest power grid location. “Qwest never even knew they were sending a bill to their own place,” Torres observed.

McGinnis then charged fellow prisoners $50 to $60 each to use one of the phone lines. They were able to use the number for 90 days before Qwest shut off the service due to nonpayment. People who accepted calls from prisoners who used the Qwest business lines were not charged the $2.35 collect call fee.

The prisoners’ family members and friends deposited money for use of the lines in McGinnis’ jail trust account, which grew so large – he was making $5,000 a month – that it exceeded the account limit. This forced the county to write McGinnis a check for the amount that exceeded the cap, according to Torres.

Apparently, McGinnis himself made 608 calls to one of the business lines over a 14-month period, totaling $1,428.80 in unpaid collect call charges. A search of his cell revealed a step-by-step guide to committing the scam and sample responses to questions asked by Qwest staff.

Also discovered were customer orders and complaints. “Hook up another line ASAP and call and give the # to my wife, and I’ll have her put the rest of the $ on your books,” wrote one prisoner. “Both of my phone lines is off and I had Jolanda put that money on your book yesterday. What’s up with that?” asked another prisoner. “I need you to fix them for me ASAP. I don’t have no way to call nobody, and I need to talk to my family bad.”

In the fall of 2008, McGinnis was indicted on 35 counts of identity theft related to the phone scam. As of December 2009 the case was still pending, though McGinnis is now serving a federal sentence in Colorado.

Qwest and jail officials did nothing to prevent others from picking up where McGinnis left off. The sheriff’s office, police and prosecutors said there was little they could do because the outdated phone system made it difficult to track calls by prisoners. Investigators have to know the number a prisoner is calling in order to track it. While most phone calls from the jail are recorded, the sheriff’s office said it lacked staff to monitor the calls.

On March 26, 2009, a guard noticed prisoner Charles Louis Sampson, Jr., 42, repeating a series of phone numbers into a jail phone, according to court documents. When investigators listened to recorded phone calls, they discovered Sampson and a woman he called were committing the same scam started by McGinnis, charging other prisoners $50 to $60 each to use Qwest business lines. During a March 29, 2009 call, Sampson gave Darlene E. Henley, his outside helper, an address, a contact name and instructions to pick up $90. Henley, in turn, gave Sampson an identify theft victim’s “profile.”

While setting up business lines on one occasion, a Qwest employee asked Sampson for his business name. “Ah, ah, ah,” Sampson stammered before replying “Gold R Us,” according to police. Qwest issued Sampson 11 business lines. In all, he sold access to the phone lines to more than 20 prisoners.

When guards searched Sampson’s bunk area on April 15, 2009 they found a list of phone numbers, believed to be fraudulent business lines, along with phone numbers of other prisoners’ families and friends. Guards also discovered lists of stolen identities.

Sampson and Henley were indicted on 10 counts of identity theft. In December 2009, Sampson pleaded guilty to six counts and was sentenced to five years in prison. Henley pleaded guilty to one count and received probation.

Just as the Sampson case was wrapping up, jail prisoner Randy Lee Hicks and two women, Kellie Michelle Blackwell and Keely Ann Royston, were indicted for committing the same phone scam as recently as August 2009. Hicks put a new twist on the scam by using fellow prisoners as identity theft victims, one of whom received a collection notice while in prison.

Yet another Multnomah County prisoner, Stephen Lee Brown, used the jail’s phone system to orchestrate a different sort of scam that targeted an elderly couple in Portland. He claimed to be their grandson and talked them into bringing $1,500 to the jail to put on his account. Jail employees stopped the fraudulent scheme, and Brown pleaded no contest to multiple counts of identity theft in April 2010. He received six years in prison.

Deputy District Attorney Kevin Demer, who prosecuted the Sampson case, said Qwest and the county were the biggest losers in the phone scam. Yet he admitted it was impossible to identify the amount of lost revenue.

The jail phone scam is not unique to Qwest, noted Bob Gravely, the company’s regional spokesman in Portland. He said company representatives have received more training on how to verify information to curtail such call-forwarding schemes. “But when they have relatively complete information on a stolen identity, it can be difficult for us to detect,” Gravely admitted. “Ultimately, we absorb the loss for this.”

“When you have 24 hours a day with nothing to do, you can come up with some ingenious things,” remarked Jim Sidler, senior director of marketing, communications and research for Securus Technologies, the Multnomah County jail system’s phone service provider, which serves around 3,000 correctional facilities nationwide. “It’s kind of a cat-and-mouse game,” he said. “We come up with a new thing, and they come up with a way around it.”

Multnomah County is seeking to upgrade its jail phone system with technology similar to that used in federal prisons and other jails. “The fact that inmates have pretty sophisticated ways to tap into the systems we know is a reality,” admitted Multnomah County Sheriff’s Captain Drew Brosh. “I think changing the system like we’re proposing to do should create a hiccup in their ability to manipulate it.”

The county wants technological improvements including personal identification numbers for prisoners, voice recognition, an ability to detect and prevent three-way calls, and automated recordings of “This call is from the Multnomah County jail system” at random intervals throughout jail phone calls. Yet Sidler, whose company offers such technology, acknowledged that prisoners elsewhere have found ways to beat those safeguards.

The Multnomah County jail began installing a new phone system in December 2009 that allows staff to track which numbers prisoners are dialing and makes it harder to use three-way calling.

Perhaps the easiest way to put an end to collect call phone scams would be to make the calls affordable so prisoners do not pursue such schemes. Eliminating exclusive jail phone service contracts, and kickbacks to the county that unfairly inflate the cost of collect calls placed by prisoners, would be a good place to start.

Sources: The Oregonian, Associated Press

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