Dozens of former and current corrections officers and inmates at a Georgia prison have been charged in a scheme that used smuggled cellphones to shake down civilians who believed they were in trouble for not reporting to jury duty.
The operation at Autry State Prison was highlighted in an NBC News investigation into the soaring number of cellphones in cellblocks and how they were being used for extortion and fraud.
There were more than 23,500 phone seized from Georgia prisons between 2014 to 2015 — and officials said many are smuggled in by prison employees.
Prosecutors found that inmates used the phones to go on the Internet and collect information about fraud targets. Posing as law enforcement officers, they called the victims and threatened to have them arrested for missing jury duty unless they paid fines.
The victims were instructed to buy pre-paid cash cards and turn over the account numbers to wire money into a pre-paid debit account. Accomplices outside the prison were used to launder the money.
Addis Thompson, 78, told his story to NBC News in March 2015.
He got a call a man who said he was an officer at the sheriff's office in Macon but was actually a cocaine dealer serving 30 years at Autry. He convinced Thompson to fork over $734 for a supposed jury duty fine.
"Being an old man, I don't want to go to jail," Thompson said.
Thompson said he had never even received a jury duty summons, but the caller was very convincing as he explained how Thompson needed to buy a "Green Dot" reloadable cash card to avoid arrest.
"Honey flowed out of that person's mouth like it was nothing," Thompson said.
County sheriff's investigators figured out who had hoodwinked Thompson and three people were charged in that case.
Now 15 corrections officers, 19 inmates and 17 other people have been indicted in federal court for other scams, on charges that include smuggling contraband, bribery, money laundering and wire fraud.
"Since September 2015, we have charged 75 people with criminal conduct that is initiated from within state prisons," said John Horn, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.
"The unfortunate common denominator to this criminal conduct is the pervasive availability of contraband cellphones, which allows too many prison inmates to continue victimizing our communities while serving their sentences."