HOUSTON -

Texas officials are beginning to see a scam emerge in prisons throughout the state where offenders are selling their own identities to try to collect multiple types of government benefits.

"It'll be four, five or six offenders sending their information to one source," said Bruce Toney, Inspector General for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Toney said investigators are starting to see cases where a group of prisoners will sell their personal information to someone on the outside, then that person will use the information to apply for all types of government benefits.

"It's family members, it's gang members, it's an organized operation," said Toney. "They hit anything and everything. From social security, to tax (refunds); any type of unemployment.

This scam is harder to track, according to Toney, because any money a prisoner receives goes to a person on the outside and not to the prisoner directly.

Toney said the person on the outside will then deposit a cut of the profits into a prisoner's commissary account. Toney said this way it appears a prisoner is receiving money from a family member or friend rather than from a government agency.

TDCJ has seen 11 cases of these cases since 2009, but Toney said investigators believe there are far more cases they have yet to uncover.

"We're just now really understanding it," said Toney.

This new con game, according to Toney, helps short-circuit traditional safeguards set-up to stop this type of fraud. Toney said almost every piece of mail sent from or to a prisoner is checked to make sure a prisoner is not trying to illegally apply for or receive government benefits.

If a check from the state or federal government is sent to a prisoner, then prison officials will hold that check until it is verified that the prisoner is legally entitled to the money.

"Many of their con games that they had on the outside they will continue on the inside," said Toney. "Just because they are locked up in a facility doesn't mean that they are going to quit trying to be criminals."

Toney said prisoners will also try to steal other prisoners' personal identification. Toney said investigators recently worked a case involving a prisoner who used a smuggled cell phone to drain a fellow prisoner's checking account.

TDCJ officials also told Local 2 Investigates they are now looking into a complaint from a woman in Tennessee who claims a convicted felon in a Texas prison has been using her social security number for the better part of 20 years.

Toney said investigators began noticing inmates selling their personal information after TDCJ clamped down on rampant income tax refund fraud.

According to Toney, TDCJ now annually sends a database of all prisoners' names and personal information to the Internal Revenue Service so those names can be cross-checked with people applying for a tax refund.