Prison inmate charged with pulling a $5,500 phone scam from behind bars

By Steven Melendez

A man serving time in Georgia’s Jimmy Autry State Prison allegedly called someone with a contraband cellphone, impersonated a deputy U.S. marshal, and demanded the victim pay a $5,500 fine for missing jury duty, federal prosecutors say.

Nicholas Rotunda Allen, who is 39, allegedly received the phone from someone not incarcerated at the prison and used a caller ID spoofing app to make it look as though he was calling from Louisiana, where the alleged victim lives. He allegedly falsely said the victim could have an arrest warrant dismissed by purchasing $5,500 in Green dot prepaid cards, which the victim did.

If convicted on the single wire fraud charge, Allen could face up to five more years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

It’s not the first time an inmate at the prison has been charged with such a crime: In 2016, more than 50 people were indicted for organizing a similar scam, with those charged including inmates who placed fraudulent calls, guards who helped smuggle them phones, and people outside prison who helped extract funds from the prepaid cards.

U.S. prisons confiscate thousands of contraband phones every year. Last month, notorious pharmaceutical businessman Martin Shkreli, who is serving seven years in a federal prison for lying to investors, was placed into solitary confinement for allegedly continuing to run his business from behind bars with the help of a contraband cellphone, Forbes reported. One inmate told the publication that inmates at the prison can rent phone time from others or pay about $1,000 to secure a contraband phone.

A bill proposed last month by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, of Arkansas would jam mobile phone signals at prisons in order to block contraband usage. “‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli is in jail for fraud, yet was able to continue his scam thanks to a contraband cellphone,” Sen. Cotton wrote on Twitter. “My bill would allow prisons to jam cellphones so inmates can’t continue their crime sprees from behind bars.”

Fraud rings impersonating government agents aren’t limited to prisons: Officials have warned that scammers have stolen millions of dollars by impersonating agencies like the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service, demanding prepaid card payments for bogus fines or back taxes.

Officials say recipients of such calls should hang up and report the scams to authorities. The IRS says it will never ask for credit card or other information over the phone, won’t call to threaten arrest or a lawsuit, and doesn’t make calls demanding payment without first sending a tax bill in the mail.

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