When a local hair stylist got a call during work last Friday, she was sure the voice she heard on the other end was her 27-year old daughter.
“It sounded exactly like her,” she said. “It sounded like she was on death’s door.”
The single mother, who wants to remain anonymous, had no idea she was the latest target of virtual kidnappers.
The call came from a 407 area code. It wasn’t her daughter’s phone number, but because she typically let her battery die, she said it made perfect sense that she may be calling from someone else's phone.
“She was saying, 'Mom, I don’t know where I am. Help me. They beat me up. Come get me,'” the woman said.
A man, who identified himself as Victor, used a matter-of-fact delivery as he instructed her to wire $1,000 from a local Walmart to a Walmart in Puerto Rico.
She was told to wire the funds to a man named Vladamir, then she was told to buy various gift cards including Amazon, Vanilla One and AT&T.
“I’m thinking my baby is sitting there with her eyes swollen shut and waiting for me to come and she’s going to die,” she said. “It takes very little to convince a mother when they hear their daughter or son’s voice. You don’t need any more information -- you just do.”
FBI agents have been tracking the virtual kidnapping schemes since early 2013 when inmates used the scam to target Hispanic families on the West Coast. In those cases, the money was always wired to Mexico.
In 2015, the FBI started seeing an increase in the United States from California to Texas and New York.
There have been variations of the scam that involves people who claim to be grandchildren calling grandparents for money, parents who are told their children need bail money and now, the virtual kidnapping schemes.
“It’s not the money,” she said. ”It’s the experience. I’ll never forget this. In my mind, it happened.”
According to the FBI, the success of any type of virtual kidnapping scheme depends on speed and fear. To avoid becoming a victim, look for the following possible indicators:
- Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone, insisting you remain on the line.
- Calls do not come from the supposed victim’s phone.
- Callers try to prevent you from contacting the “kidnapped” victim.
- Calls include demands for ransom money to be paid via wire transfer to Mexico; ransom amount demands may drop quickly.
If you receive a phone call from someone demanding a ransom for an alleged kidnap victim, experts say the following should be considered:
- In most cases, the best course of action is to hang up the phone.
- If you do engage the caller, don’t call out your loved one’s name.
- Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to your family member directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
- Ask questions only the alleged kidnap victim would know, such as the name of a pet. Avoid sharing information about yourself or your family.
- Listen carefully to the voice of the alleged victim if they speak.
- Attempt to contact the alleged victim via phone or text.