How a Bunch of Georgia Prisoners Duped Dozens of People in Harris County

The phone call from the “Harris County Sheriff's Office” went like this: “You have an open warrant. You owe us money. Unless you pay up, we will send somebody to arrest you.”

The caller would then ask the nervous victim to drive to a Kroger or a convenience store to purchase a pre-paid credit card, and to stay on the line. Once the victim bought it, the caller would ask the person to read the number on the card back to him before mailing it to "court."

That's how dozens of people in Harris County lost hundreds or thousands of dollars to inmates in Georgia prisons who carried out these identity scams, according to sheriff's officials. 

“People who have never really been in trouble or know anything about the criminal justice system may actually get freaked out by these things,” said Harris County sheriff's deputy Josh Nowitz. “And that could be their rent money for the month.”

This month, the FBI indicted 46 corrupt guards in Georgia for providing inmates with the cellphones they used to make these scam calls in exchange for thousands of dollars in bribes — money that, at least in part, likely came from naive law-abiding citizens. In a nearly two-year-long investigation, the FBI seized more than 23,500 contraband phones from inmates. In January, the FBI also indicted 15 inmates, 19 former prison officials and 17 others for helping with the scams.

Nevertheless, Nowitz said the scam is still ongoing and citizens should still be wary of any phone call that comes from the “sheriff's office.” Nowitz said there are a number of different versions of this scam, and that another common one is that “you didn't show up for jury duty, and there's a warrant out for you.”

“That seems reasonable, right? People get jury summonses — maybe it didn't get delivered,” Nowitz said. “What was scary about this scam was that they were using actual names of individuals who really do work at the sheriff's office.”

If anyone receives these calls, Nowitz said, he or she should hang up and call the actual sheriff's office at 713-221-6000. Because if HCSO really had a warrant out for you, he said, deputies wouldn't be calling you. They'd probably be arresting you at your door. And they certainly would not be asking you to go buy a pre-paid credit card at Kroger.

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