Originally posted on Riverside County News Source August 19, 2017
After a recent spike of incidents in Riverside County involving phone-based, kidnapping scams, Riverside County sheriff’s officials are reminding citizens to be wary of and to immediately report any phone calls or texts from an unknown person claiming a family member or loved one has been kidnapped or is being held for ransom.
The scams, which law enforcement officials and federal investigators first began to see in 2013 and have dubbed “virtual kidnappings,” have become more common and have been gaining popularity among criminals looking for a quick and too often very easy payout.
The scam has been particularly prevalent in California, especially among Hispanic victims, the elderly and the affluent, but similar scams have been reported by victims of all financial backgrounds across the nation, according to a recent FBI report.
One 2015 task force uncovers over 80 victims of virtual kidnappings
In 2015, the FBI began a task force, dubbed “Operation Hotel Tango,” with Los Angeles-area law enforcement agencies. The multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency task force located more than 80 victims throughout California, Texas, Idaho and Minnesota. With average losses around $1,000 per family, the victim’s losses totaled $74,000.
Although many of the cases involved suspects looking for a quick, if not substantial, payout, some of the cases have been known to yield tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In many of the known cases, the victims were contacted over the phone by unknown suspects who claimed that their loved ones had been kidnapped. The suspects often said the kidnapped person had witnessed a crime, owed a debt or been smuggled across the border into Mexico and that they would be tortured and killed if a ransom was not paid immediately.
In some cases, victims reported they could hear the agonized screams of a person they were manipulated to believe was their family member. This was done to cause fear and panic in order to quickly extort ransom payments from the victims.
By the time the victims learned their family members had not been kidnapped and had never been in danger, the “ransom payments” had already been sent off to the scammers and were unrecoverable.
The callers have also often been known to keep the person on the phone throughout the process of obtaining and wiring the money, to ensure the terrified victim does not have an opportunity to contact law enforcement officials, friends or other family members.
One parent shares her two-hour long, nightmare ordeal
In one such incident reported to law enforcement officials in March of this year, the mother of a California Baptist University student was contacted by a unknown number with a Mexico prefix.
When the victim, 60-year-old, Laura Bontrager, answered the phone the first thing she heard was the screaming of a young woman, followed by an unknown man who got onto the phone and said he had kidnapped the woman’s college-aged daughter. The man told the victim he was holding a gun to her daughter’s stomach.
The man told Bontrager that her daughter had witnessed a crime involving a child and the only way she would ever get to see her daughter alive again was to wire him a ransom in Mexico. The man then ordered the victim to go to a bank and pull out as much money as she could.
Over the next two hours, the suspect kept the terrified victim on the phone, using the mother’s fear for her daughter to control her actions in trying to accomplish what he wanted.
After Bontrager went to an ATM and pulled out $1,000, her bank’s limit, and prepared to wire the money to the “kidnapper” her husband managed to get in touch with the daughter who had allegedly been kidnapped.
To the parent’s relief, their daughter was safe and at one of her classes at the college.
FBI warns of sharp increase of virtual kidnapping incidents
At a July 2017, press conference in Los Angeles, the FBI warned Southern Californians about the scam, saying that countless Southern California residents were known to have been targeted by scammers claiming to have kidnapped the victims’ loved ones. Although officials have identified many victims, they believe the true number of victims is much higher, but that many of the victims choose not to report the crimes.
During the press conference, one victim, a Westside LAPD traffic sergeant, shared his experience when he was targeted – unsuccessfully – during a similar virtual kidnapping scam.
The sergeant, explained he had been driving on the 405 Freeway when he received a phone call from a number he did not recognize. When he answered the phone, he could hear a person screaming, “Daddy, daddy, help me!”
“I didn’t recognize the voice,” the sergeant said, “so I tried to explain to her that she needed to call 911.”
At that point another person’s voice came onto the line and told the sergeant that his daughter had been kidnapped and he had to transfer money to the suspect in order to get his daughter back safely.
“They specifically threatened to put a bullet in the back of my child’s head,” the sergeant said.
As the phone call continued – for over one hour – the terrified sergeant spotted some Torrance police officers, who were able to determine that the intended victim’s daughter was safe at her school.
How to avoid being scammed by virtual kidnap schemes
According to many law enforcement agencies across the nation that have been hit by these types of scams, some common indicators you might be falling victim to a virtual kidnap scam include if:
— Incoming calls come from an outside area code or from these specific area codes: 787, 939 and 856.
— Calls come from an unknown number rather than from the alleged kidnap victim’s phone.
— Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone while demanding you obtain ransom money.
— Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer, which allows the money to be picked up anywhere in the world, or by specific means such as a “Green Dot” card.
Law enforcement agencies have also suggested potential victims try to slow the situation down. Call recipients should request to speak to the victim directly or ask for other forms of “proof of life” from the alleged kidnappers. If the kidnappers refuse to allow you speak with the victim, ask them to describe the victim, the vehicle they drive, or to answer some questions that only the real victim would know.
If the callers can not answer your questions or refuse to provide proof that your loved one is alive and uninjured, chances are you are being targeted by scammers looking for a quick buck.
Anyone with information regarding this type of fraudulent activity is encouraged to contact their local law enforcement agency. Those who live within jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Department can also submit a tip using the Sheriff’s CrimeTips online form.