Cops warn of ‘virtual kidnapping’ scam demanding parents pay ransom for kids
Police in Southern California are warning parents to be extra cautious after two “virtual kidnapping” cases in which suspects demanded large ransoms to get their children safely back home.
No one was abducted in either case, but that didn’t stop one man from forking over a $5,000 ransom on March 7 after getting a random call on his cellphone, Laguna Beach police told the Orange County Register.
“The suspect ordered the victim to stay on the phone with him throughout this incident,” Sgt. Jima Cota told the newspaper. “The victim became fearful for his daughter and after briefly hearing a female scream into the phone stating she had been kidnapped, the victim went to his bank and withdrew $5,000.”
The unknown caller then directed the man to go to various wire transfer locations outside Laguna Beach, where he then transferred the funds to an account in Mexico. Roughly four hours later, as the victim finished up the transactions, Cota said, the man then got a call from his daughter, who was unharmed and in Laguna Beach.
The girl told her father that she wasn’t kidnapped, but he was unable to stop the transaction in time, Cota said.
Laguna Beach police received a second call a day later. This time, an unidentified caller told a victim that her daughter had been kidnapped while attending college in Chicago. The parents were instructed to withdraw money and to wire the funds to an account in Mexico, using the same location in Costa Mesa to send the cash, Cota said.
“Once the mother pulled out the money, she called the police department,” Cota told the newspaper. “Police officers stopped her on her way out of town and were able to stop the transfer of money.”
The woman’s daughter was later confirmed to be safe in Chicago. Both cases have since been referred to the FBI, which investigates similar schemes that impact hundreds of people annually, according to the newspaper.
“Two incidents in 24 hours is unacceptable,” Cota said. “We can’t afford to have people lose their hard-earned money.”
Laguna Beach police alerted residents to the scam on March 8 in a detailed Facebook post that suggested that the “best course of action” in most cases is to simply hang up.
“This type of activity is called ‘virtual kidnapping’ and we believe the suspect was able to learn personal information of the victim through unsecured social media sites,” the post read. “Review the settings of all your social media sites to make sure they are secured to protect yourself against being a victim.”
To avoid becoming victimized, police urged people to look for possible indicators like someone trying desperately to keep you on the phone and calls that don’t come from the supposed victim’s phone.
“If you engage the caller, don’t call out your loved one’s name,” the post continued. “Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to your family member directly. Ask, ‘How do I know my loved one is okay?’”
To buy extra time in such a situation, police also suggested that people repeat the caller’s ransom demand and request extra time to meet those conditions.
“Don’t agree to pay a ransom, by wire or in person,” the post concluded. “Delivering money in person can be dangerous. If you suspect a real kidnapping is taking place or you believe a ransom demand is a scheme, contact your local law enforcement immediately.”