PINELLAS COUNTY – Jackie Lynn Jones wasn’t home when the call that started her trouble came in.
Her roommate took the call from an operator asking if she would accept a collect call from a “Jason” in a juvenile detention center.
“I have a godson named Jason,” said Jones, a divorcee who recently moved from New Hampshire to Largo. “Since I wasn’t home she accepted the charges, thinking something might be terribly wrong.”
But the Jason on the phone wasn’t Jones’ godson.
He was a young con artist who convinced the roommate to punch in a 3-character set of symbols and numbers, which won’t be revealed here, followed by a phone number.
That had the effect of making the detention center’s phone an extension of Jones’ phone.
All long distance calls made by the inmates were charged to her bill. Her only clue that something was wrong was a single ring of her phone each time a long distance call was made.
“I heard about 30 single rings on Thanksgiving Day,” Jones said. “They went on past midnight, so the kids must have been having a field day.”
Pat Arbutine, owner of the Belleair Coins Gold and Diamonds and the Silver Queen in Largo, fell victim to a similar scam. A man called collect and told her that a loved one of hers had been badly injured and she needed to call a certain number to get the details from the attending physician, which she did.
“I should have known better,” said Arbutine, who formerly worked for a telephone company. “But it was after midnight and it was scary because my one son just got a motorcycle and I could just picture him lying in the road.”
In another variation of the scheme, the scammer claims to be a telephone company repairman and instructs the victim to dial a specific combination of symbols and numbers so he can check the line. Telephone companies are well aware of these scams.
“The inmates in jails have been doing that for several months,” said a Verizon operator reached by dialing “0.” But authorities are just now learning of it.
“We haven’t heard of this,” said Nancy Sloss, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Justice and Consumer Protection. “It’s new to me.”
“We’ve had some reports that inmates at the Miami-Dade County Jail are placing calls like that,” said Mac McMullen, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
Jones and Arbutine haven’t received their phone bills yet, so they don’t know how many unauthorized calls were made. But it is unlikely they will have to pay for them because the unauthorized use was promptly reported to their long distance carriers. Even so, Jones advises others to be alert for similar scams.
“This is like a buyer beware situation,” Jones said.
Authorities caution against accepting collect calls from strangers. People who suspect that their phone number is being used by unauthorized persons should contact their long distance carrier. They should also carefully review their telephone bills for unauthorized charges.
As a pre-emptive measure, people can call 1-800-231-0193 and ask to have their number blocked from receiving collect calls from any correctional institution served by MCI.