Twenty Cook County jail inmates have been charged with impersonating a police officer in fraudulent phone calls that reached into several states across the country and into Canada, according to a news release from Sheriff Tom Dart.
Police believe the inmates collectively charged more than $50,000 in illegal phone calls.
Because inmates at the jail are pre-trial detainees who have not yet been convicted of a crime, they are entitled to use the jail's pay phones, Dart's office said.
Inmates effectively hijacked victims' phone numbers by getting them to forward all calls to the jail phones, which then allows the inmate to charge subsequent collect calls to the victim's home account.
The scam involved an inmate calling random numbers, posing as a police officer. They would tell whoever answered the phone that a loved one was in a car crash, and to get more information, they would need to dial a series of numbers to reach an officer at the scene. The number would begin with *72 or 1172, which forwards the victim's calls to another number. Listen to one of the calls where an inmate scams an 11-year-old boy.
The county responded by installing a new phone system and safeguards to prevent further abuse, the sheriff said. Listen to the new audio prompt people will hear when they receive a call from a Cook County inmate.
"The old phone system allowed inmates to reach out from behind bars to victimize people in their own homes," Dart said. "Listening to these calls is heartbreaking, especially when you hear the fear in the voices of the victims."
If convicted of impersonating an officer, each inmate could face an additional 1 to 3 years in prison.
Offenders charged in this investigation placed calls to random phone numbers in Chicago, Maywood, as well as Gary, Ind.; Las Vegas, Nev.; Jefferson, Texas; London, Ky.; Willowville, Ohio and Berwick, Nova Scotia.