The Rev. Robert Harris, a longtime civil rights activist, has been stuck with the bill for about $5,600 in fraudulent money orders as the victim of a scheme by Mississippi prison inmates, postal inspectors said.
Harris, the first black to serve in the Legislature and long known for his lie-in protests, said he's sorry he got stuck but isn't angry."That's what I get for being a good Samaritan. I'm praying for him," he said, referring to the inmate who called himself George Gowan.
"He called me about eight months ago very dispirited," Harris said. "He said he didn't have any shoes in prison."
Harris said the prisoner called him repeatedly, running up large phone bills until Harris told him to quit.
The prisoner sent him $2,900 in money orders, Harris said, which he cashed. Those bounced, he said, so he was sent another $5,600 in postal orders, which Harris cashed, used the money to pay off the first batch and sent the rest back to the prisoner's aunt to pay a fine owed by the prisoner.
"I called his aunt about it and she was quite upset about it, naturally," Harris said, but didn't send the money back.
Mike Hesse, a postal inspector at Memphis, Tenn., said the scheme is practically a national institution.
It started about 1974 among the inmates at Parchman, a Mississippi state prison. The inmates perfected the art of "raising" postal money orders, taking a money order of low value and changing the numbers, he said.
The prisoners are very good at it, he said. Old prisoners train new ones in a kind of apprentice program, showing them how to erase old numbers and draw on new ones or, on newer money orders, do a cut-and-paste job.
They then send the money orders to people on the outside who cash them and send the money back to the prisoner.
There are a lot of victims, Hesse said. He has a computer printout an inch thick just listing the victims.
The prisoners at Parchman often find names of people in lonely hearts publications, singles publications and homosexual publications, he said. They write or telephone collect, saying they need help.
"So they strike up this relationship," Hesse said. "You know, `I love you, I'm coming to be with you.' Or they prey upon clergy by saying, `I'm in trouble, I'm trying to straighten out my life,' " and would the person please help by holding some money for the prisoner.
The inmate sends the victim the doctored money orders, asking that they be cashed and the money deposited in the victim's account.
Then the prisoner or a go-between contacts the victim and says the money is needed to pay a fine or a bribe or something, Hesse said. They ask that the money be sent to the go-between, always in cash, not by check or money order.
"And about 30 days later the money order starts bouncing back through the system and the victim is trashed," Hesse said.
"Of course, the problem with the whole situation is you are dealing with inmates, people who are already in prison for a long time," Hesse said.
"They tend to be uncooperative with investigators and are hard to prosecute. Most of them laugh at you," he said.