'Just hang up on them': Beware of Alabama prisoners making scam calls with cellphones, cop says

An investigation into scam calls received by some north Alabamians has led to the discovery of a prison gang that is swindling money, particularly from the elderly, an official said.

"They're scaring these elderly people to death," said Caleb Durden, a Limestone County sheriff's investigator who has been probing scam calls made by an Alabama prisoner to local residents.

 

Ronnie Coleman, an inmate at Bibb Correctional Facility, has been connected to a scam that attempted to take thousands, including targeting a woman whose son had just died, authorities said. Two women, who are accused of helping Coleman with the scam, have been arrested.

The scam works like this, Durden said: Someone will call claiming to be from the IRS or a law enforcement agency. The caller will tell potential victims they missed federal grand jury duty or owe money on their taxes. If the potential victim will provide over-the-phone payment of all or part of what is owed, the government won't come make an arrest.

"Just hang up on them," Durden said. "Contact the agency or organization they claim to represent if you are concerned, but those agencies generally do not call and tell you to pay them money."

Sheriff Mike Blakely said anyone who receives a suspicious call should contact local law enforcement.

"I receive many complaints every month from residents who received such calls, and almost everyone of them is easily recognizable as a scam," Blakely said. "It's a lot easier for us to be able to tell you in advance that someone is attempting to scam you than it is to spend so many investigative hours and resources to track down scammers and try to recover money someone has sent to them."

Blakely, who was impersonated by another scammer in Limestone County recently, also was mentioned in the scam Coleman was operating from prison.

Impersonation

In October, Coleman falsely told an elderly Limestone County woman that he was "Chad Blakely, a nephew of Sheriff Mike Blakely," when he called to swindle her out of $10,000, authorities said. The woman's son had recently died, and she received a life-insurance payment for $10,000. Somehow Coleman found out about the payment, called the woman from a 256-area code number and said that she had mistakenly been overpaid by the insurance company with $20,000, according to investigators.

Coleman later called the woman again and said he was sending employees, wearing name badges, to collect the over-payment at her home. Two women, Constance Hammond and Letia Hammons, showed up at the home, an investigator said. The women took the victim to two local stores trying to cash a $7,500 check, but they were unsuccessful, Durden said. The two women then left.

Coleman again called the victim, telling her to go to Walmart in Madison and purchase multiple prepaid cellphones and calling cards, according to investigators. When the woman tried to pay $2,583 for the 14 items -- a "suspicious purchase," according to law enforcement -- the cashier refused. Authorities said Coleman told the woman he would meet her at her bank another day.

Eventually law enforcement was contacted to investigate the strange calls. Durden connected the calls to Coleman and his accomplices. Hammonds and Hammons were arrested and charged with attempted financial exploitation of the elderly and criminal impersonation. They are free on bail.

"Skits"

During an interview with Durden, Coleman admitted to running the scam from his cell at Bibb Correctional, authorities said.

"Coleman informed him that there were several other people in prison who run similar 'skits,' a slang term for these scams," the sheriff said in a statement.

In an emailed statement to AL.com Thursday night, an Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman said prison system officials are aware of the scams perpetrated by inmates.

"The department's investigations and intelligence division  works closely with local law enforcement agencies to stop and prevent such criminal activity, and to detect, find and remove illegal cell phones from state correctional facilities," the statement reads.

Durden said he's only confirmed and investigated cases involving Bibb Correctional inmates, though prisoners told him it's a common practice among inmates at several prisons.

"They basically just go through the phone book," he said. Some prisoners use the money they swindle to pay their families' bills or send back to others on the outside.

In one case, Durden said he found an inmate used scam proceeds to pay his mother's utility bills in Huntsville.

"We're just tired of them calling up here," Durden said of the inmate scammers who are contacting Limestone County residents.

Durden said other agencies also are probing the case, including the FBI and ADOC's investigations division.

Source: al

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