MIAMI – Miami police and the FBI are warning people to be wary of “virtual kidnapping” extortion calls.
It comes after police uncovered a sophisticated and sinister scam targeting a Miami couple who spoke to Local 10 News of their harrowing experience.
Scammers told the wife she was on the cusp of arrest after her social security number had been compromised; while calling the husband to say she and their newborn baby has been kidnapped, demanding a ransom.
Leveraging these tag-team fear tactics, the scammers swindled the couple out of $12,000.
“He thought I was kidnapped,” the wife said.
“It was one of the worst days of our lives,” the husband recalls.
The victims were willing to share their story but not their identities in light of the harrowing experience they say went on for hours.
The wife says she normally doesn’t answer unknown calls, but since she has been job hunting after losing work amid the pandemic, she thought the incoming 786 area code was related to her job search.
On the line, a scammer, who called claiming to be from the social security office, told her she was on the cusp of arrest because her identity had been stolen and she was linked to illegal activity that included drug trafficking and money laundering in West Texas.
To remedy the situation she was told she needed to set up a new financial account in what they told her was a secure bitcoin account. She would move $12,000 from their Chase bank account and deposit it into a bitcoin machine in a Miami gas station, she was told. They also said she could not take calls from her husband or else it would implicate him in the identity theft situation.
“The story was really crazy, but in that moment I was like very nervous,” she said.
At one point when her baby was crying for food, the scammers also convinced her to send them a picture of the infant to show that the newborn was doing OK.
As she was out doing that, another scammer called the husband. They sent him the picture of the baby along with the text “Do you want your baby back or not?” A caller had already led him to believe his wife and baby had been kidnapped. They then demanded a ransom, sending another text he showed Local 10 News, which read: “You are responsible for your family.”
He recounts one gripping moment when they claimed his wife and infant were in the backseat of a car at a certain address. When he got there, he didn’t see a car and proceeded to frantically run to every parked car in the area checking backseats, looking for his wife and baby. He then called the police.
Police stayed with him, urging him not to send money but to keep the scammers on the phone while they tracked her cell phone to find her. Cell phone video shot by Local 10 News at 6:02 p.m. Friday shows members of a Miami police tactical unit blocking her car on I-95 South.
Police explain that, at the time, they thought they were rescuing a kidnapping victim, but what they found was the victim of a massive fraud scheme.
The scam was sophisticated. Not only were the callers on the phone with the couple at the same time, they picked addresses to advance their scheme near where they live. They even had several other callers pretend to be police, assuring her the call from social security was real.
“I feel terrible,” the woman said. “I don’t know why I continued. I was so scared.”
“When you get that phone call that you are in trouble with the law, you are threatened with arrest, you are being told your wife your child is being kidnapped you, you are not in the right state of mind,” state Miami Police Criminal Investigations Division Assistant Chief Armando Aguilar. “It is so important to be aware of these scams ahead of time, so if you do get one of these phone calls, you know exactly what you are dealing with.”
Aguilar also said with “so many of these scammers operating overseas” the key takeaway here is prevention. Government agencies, he explained, won’t call you making threats of arrest. Your best bet is to call back the actual agency claiming to be calling you. If you do get a kidnapping claim, call police.
Experts say kidnapping for ransom is extremely rare. Miami police say that over the past three years, none of the stranger abductions they have documented involved a ransom.
“Kidnapping plots tend to capture our imagination in movies,” Aguilar said. “The fact is kidnapping for ransom is extremely rare, and so if someone calls you and tells you they have your loved one and are demanding money it is more than likely a scam.”
The Miami couple in this local “virtual kidnapping” extortion case say they are sharing their story — despite how painful the experience was — in hopes that no one else falls victim to it.
The FBI says to avoid becoming a victim of this sort of extortion scheme, look for the following possible indicators:
- May involve multiple phone calls
- Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
- Callers prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim
If you receive a phone call from someone who demands payment of a ransom for a kidnapped victim, the following should be considered:
- Stay Calm
- Try to slow the situation down
- Avoid sharing information about you or your family during the call
- Request to speak to the victim directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is OK?”
- Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone
- Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim if they speak, and ask questions only they would know
- If they don’t let you speak to the victim, ask them to describe the victim or describe the vehicle they drive, if applicable
- While staying on the line with alleged kidnappers, try to call the alleged kidnap victim from another phone
- Attempt to text or contact the victim via social media
- Attempt to physically locate the victim
- To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to get things moving
- Don’t directly challenge or argue with the caller, keep your voice low and steady
- If you have any question about whether the call is an extortion scheme or a legitimate kidnapping, contact your nearest FBI office or call 911 immediately