How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of the Jailhouse Jingles Phone Scam

Whether You Use a Landline or a Cell Phone, Be Wary of This Phone Scam

Confused woman using cell phone
••• Huchen Lu/E+/Getty Images

By simply answering your phone and deciding to help someone out of the goodness of your heart, you could unwittingly become a victim of an expensive phone scam known as "Jailhouse Jingles." Such is the story for dozens of people, old and young, who have been duped and were generally unaware until they received their telephone bill. 

Having a telephone and placing calls, whether it's from a landline at home or the office or a mobile phone, is not free.

You may simply pay a monthly contract price for the privilege or perhaps you even pay by the minute. You may pay extra for an international plan or your may be subject to applicable long distance charges when making certain calls. Either way, despite the easy of making a phone call today and the fact that most of us don't even think twice about it, it is certainly not free.

And these Jailhouse Jingles scammers know that. In prison, things work a little differently when it comes to placing a call. It's certainly not free, but when it comes to this scam, you're the one unknowingly footing the bill. In prison, inmates must either prepay for a call or they must call collect, which is a type of reverse charge call where it is the recipient of the call who accepts the charge of the phone call. Here's how some phone scammers are avoiding having to pay or having their loved ones pay for these prison calls.

How The Jailhouse Jingle Scam Works

The scam gets its name from the fact that the scam is most often run by pr ison inmates in lower-security facilities with access to pay phones. The inmate may first call an outside accomplice, who then initiates a three-way call to you, thereby preventing you from hearing the recording that precedes calls from correctional facilities, which state that the call is coming from a convict at a particular prison.

Or the inmate might call you directly, using the prison recording and a little acting to their advantage. Take this story as an example.

You hear the phone ring. When you answer it, you receive a recording that asks if you will accept a call from an inmate at a certain prison facility. You may also be asked if you are willing to accept the charges of the collect call. You don't know anyone incarcerated at the prison, but for fear that someone you know is in trouble, you accept the call and charges. Suddenly there is another voice on the other end asking for someone you don't know. It sounds like a wrong number or misdials. But before you part ways, the inmate on the other end asks for your help. You see, the inmate only gets one phone call, they'll tell you. But they really need to get a hold of this person, perhaps it's their mother. Would you help them out by transferring the call? All you have to do is press *72 and the correct phone number. You think you're helping this person out - helping someone who's obviously down on their luck. But in fact, you've just opened yourself up to the possibility of a very expensive phone bill. 

Dialing the sequences *72, 72#, or 90# activates call forwarding, essentially transferring control of your phone to the person on the other end.

By dialing these sequences and whatever telephone number the caller provides you, you are essential allowing the scam artist to continue to make long distance phone calls or collect calls to your account even after you hang up, but they will automatically forward to a third party. You'll be racking up quite the phone bill, but your phone may not even ring. 

How This Scam Costs You Money

Since all calls from jails and prisons are collect, the charges that appear on your next phone bill could total hundreds of dollars or more. When you receive your phone bill, it may contain charges for calls you didn't make, perhaps even costly 900 "sex line" numbers or other calls that cost nearly $1 per minute.

How To Avoid Being a Victim 

It's easy to avoid being a victim of this scam simply by knowing about it.

Never dial *72 or any other call-forwarding number at the request of a stranger. That stranger could be an inmate as in the example above, or it could be stranger posing as a police officer, emergency room personnel, or another authority figure. They may pretend to have called the wrong number, and in the essence of time or limited calls may ask you to "transfer" the call. Anyone asking you to dial these sequences, however, are looking to use your account, not looking for help. 

If for some reason you do dial a call-forwarding sequence, you can deactivate it by dialing *73 (on Verizon accounts) or 73# (for others).

How To Report This Scam

As with many phone scams, they come in and out of style -- particularly as technology continues to change. So if you ever receive what you believe to be a Jailhouse Jingle call or any other phone scam, you can help fight telephone fraud by reporting it. You can report telephone scam artists to the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357) and to your state Attorney General.