A terrifying scam that leaves families unsure over whether their loved ones have just been kidnapped continues to be reported in the U.S., according to the FBI – reaching now as close as Indiana.
In a recent report from NBC Indianapolis affiliate WTHR, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Doug Kasper said a virtual kidnapping crime, which has previously been reported in New Mexico, California, Minnesota, Idaho and Texas, had been reported for the first time in Indiana. The FBI Indianapolis office also confirmed the report on Twitter.
A Noblesville father told WTHR he received a horrifying hoax call appearing to be from his daughter’s phone.
“I looked down and it was my daughter, so I answered the phone," Mark Walker said. "The person on the other end identified themselves as having my daughter tied up and demanded I listen to him very carefully. He said ‘I’m not playing around,' demanded that I go to Walmart and purchase a MoneyGram and send it to him or that he was going to kill my daughter.”
Minutes later, Walker’s son also reportedly received a call. This one appeared to be from his father, and even had his dad’s photo in the caller ID.
“He said he had a gun to [my dad’s] head, not to text anyone, not to call anyone; if I don't do exactly what he says, he's going to shoot him,” Eli Walker told WTHR.
Mark Walker said he told his wife to call their daughter, who said she was picking her children up from school. Eli Walker remained silent during his call while texting his mother to confirm his father was safe.
WHAT IS THE SCAM?
The FBI has been aware of such scams for at least two decades, with the crimes taking on many forms over the years, authorities said.
“Unlike traditional abductions, virtual kidnappers have not actually kidnapped anyone. Instead, through deceptions and threats, they coerce victims to pay a quick ransom before the scheme falls apart,” the FBI said in a recent warning.
Between 2013 and 2015, FBI investigators with the Los Angeles Division tracked similar calls to Mexican prisons and said the callers were targeting Spanish speakers in the Los Angeles and Houston areas.
In 2015, the calls started coming in English, the FBI said.
Around that time, hundreds of hoax kidnapping calls were reported in New York, prompting a warning from the FBI and NYPD.
In one version of the scam, the caller tells a victim that their husband or son has gotten into a car accident with a gang member. They tell the victim their relative is seriously injured, but the gang member won't allow the person to go to the hospital until damages to his vehicle are paid.
In yet another instance, a caller tells a victim his or her daughter has been kidnapped. A second young woman screams in the background during the call to convince the victim that their daughter is in imminent danger. Other calls include details about drug debts, human trafficking or assaults.
In 2017, a federal grand jury in Houston indicted a 34-year-old woman who police say picked up ransom money from victims in Texas and wired some of it to individuals in Mexico.
A year later, the FBI issued another warning for virtual kidnapping scams, particularly in the New Mexico area. But this time, they warned the “perpetrators of these crimes are becoming more sophisticated.”
“They are using social media and social engineering to dupe people into thinking their loved ones have been kidnapped,” the warning stated.
In the latest cases, the scammers try to keep victims on the phone so they can’t verify their loved ones’ whereabouts or contact law enforcement, authorities said.
“The callers demanded a wire payment to Mexico,” the warning stated.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU RECEIVE A CALL?
The FBI said in most cases, the “best course of action is to hang up the phone.”
Another option is to do what the Walkers did and try to contact the alleged victim.
“If you do engage the caller, do not disclose your loved one’s name or provide any identifying information,” the September 2018 warning from the FBI stated. “Try to slow the situation down. The success of any type of virtual kidnapping scheme depends on speed and fear. Criminals know they only have a short time to exact a ransom before the victims unravel the scam or authorities become involved.”
They also advise that those who receive the call ask to speak with their family member directly by saying “How do I know my loved one is OK?”
“Ask questions only the alleged kidnap victim would know, such as the name of a pet. Avoid sharing information about yourself or your family,” the warning states.
Other tips include:
- Listen carefully to the voice of the alleged victim if they speak. Often it is someone posing as the kidnap victim.
- To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need more time.
- Do not agree to pay a ransom, by wire or in person. 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 nearest FBI office or local law enforcement immediately.