Traditionally, tobacco and stamps have been the preferred currency in prisons. But now it appears that in some prisons cellular airtime on contraband smuggled phones may be the new prison currency. According to this article, prisoners in a South African jail are using smuggled cell phones to run a scam to get wireless airtime.
A prison official states, “We have found the phones and sim cards in the strangest of places. Some of them hide it in their rectum, in bars of soap and in the bunk beds. Money is not allowed in prison, so airtime is the preferred currency. Cellphones and airtime were a sought-after commodity in prison with inmates trading these for drugs, cigarettes, food, toiletries, pornography and cash”
The problem with only addressing the supply side of the contraband cell phone problem is that demand still exists. Airtime, unlike tobacco, cannot be easily found or confiscated. Stored in a wireless network billing record and accessed via a tiny and easy to conceal SIM card, it is a “virtual” currency within a prison.The emergence of cellular airtime as a new form of prison currency can be preempted however by co-opting the demand for airtime through the provision of a secure prison cell phone solution such as meshDETECT.
Inmates at Westville Prison in Durban, posing as policemen, are believed to be behind a cellphone scam that has raked in thousands of rand.
Posing as either a Superintendent Naidoo or a Warrant Officer Reddy, the prisoner calls the victim and warns them they either have outstanding traffic fines or a warrant has been issued for their arrest. They are then ordered to pay or go to jail.
A senior warder at the prison told the Daily News that inmates find their victims through advertisements, articles, happenings and classified columns in magazines and newspapers.
The Daily News has spoken to three victims of the scam and this week three cellphones were seized from cells during daily raids, said the source.
The calls, according to the source, are generally made on a Friday and the victims are told they will be kept behind bars over the weekend if they do not pay up. Victims are either told to transfer money into a Money Market account at Checkers or to buy airtime and transfer it to the inmate’s cellphone. The source said that cellphones and airtime were a sought-after commodity in prison with inmates trading these for drugs, cigarettes, food, toiletries, pornography and cash.
He said cellphones were also used by the prisoners to run online businesses and sell airtime.
However, Department of Correctional Services spokesman, Nokuthula Zikhali, denied that the scam was perpetrated by prisoners at Westville. She said according to policy, offenders were not allowed to keep cellphones.
Zikhali said offenders could only make calls from telephone booths located outside their cells and at a specific time.
In the latest incident on Friday a Tongaat man was almost conned out of R1 800 by a “Warrant Officer Reddy”.
“Reddy” called the man and told him he had R1 800 in outstanding traffic fines and needed to deposit the money into a money market account. He threatened to go to his workplace and throw him in the back of a police van if he failed to comply.
Fortunately, the man smelt a rat and alerted the police. But this did not deter “Reddy”, who made more than 45 calls demanding the money.
“A policeman tracked the call to Westville Prison. When I confronted him (on the phone), he wished police luck in finding him. He said there were thousands of prisoners at Westville,” the victim said.
A Durban North estate agent, Zakia Peer Mahomed, said a “Warrant Officer Reddy” called her last week, telling her that her husband had been arrested for non payment of traffic fines. He told her to buy airtime and send it to his phone.
Then, he asked her to meet him at a supermarket in Phoenix to hand over R1500 in cash.
“He was very pushy. But, I caught on it was a scam. I called the police. They tried to track him but were unsuccessful.”
Durban North couple, Umberto, 75, and Roberta Josi, 74, were not so lucky. They were conned out of R1 650 by a “Superintendent Naidoo” earlier this year. Roberta said “Naidoo” called her husband and told him that Roberta had been arrested and was at Westville Prison. He demanded R1 650 for her immediate release.
“I was not at home at the time and my husband could not reach me on my cellphone. He was afraid and went to a supermarket where he bought the airtime. ‘Naidoo’ then called him back and asked him for the voucher number on the receipt. He then downloaded the airtime on to his phone.
“He then had the cheek to ask my husband to buy another R2 000 worth of airtime. By this time Umberto realised it was a scam. He reported it to the Durban North Police. A private investigator later told us the calls were being made from the prison.”
All three victims had their names and cellphone numbers published in various newspapers before they were called.
The prison source said cellphones and sim cards were smuggled into the prison through corrupt officials and relatives of the prisoners.
“We have found the phones and sim cards in the strangest of places. Some of them hide it in their rectum, in bars of soap and in the bunk beds. Money is not allowed in prison, so airtime is the preferred currency. Some of the prisoners have sim cards with over R5 000 airtime loaded on to it.”
Umesh Raga of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services said the allegation of any inmate being in possession of a cellular phone was of concern since these were prohibited in correctional centres. He said they were unaware of the scam.