Law enforcement officials warned the public Tuesday about a spree of "virtual kidnapping" schemes that have scared people into paying thousands of dollars in ransom money even though their loved ones were never in danger.
The FBI and Los Angeles Police Department said they have seen an increase in the crimes over the last two years, which involve suspects calling people and telling them they are holding a family member of theirs hostage. Sometimes the calls are random, and sometimes the suspects have researched their victims through social media, police said.
Since 2015 through May, police have reported 252 incidents in Los Angeles and victims have paid out over $114,000 in ransom money only to find out later that their loved ones were never in danger.
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Often the suspects pick an area code and make random calls, and when someone answers they claim they have a family member of theirs — often a child — and that they will kill them if they don't wire them money immediately, police said.
If the person does not believe the call and hangs up, the suspects just move on to the next number until they find someone who believes them.
"They might have somebody in the background screaming to imitate their child," said LAPD Capt. William Hayes at a news conference at LAPD headquarters.
"Then they would talk about taking fingers, killing them. It doesn't take much like that if you're a parent to know that you'll want to do anything to protect them."
A Houston woman, Yanette Rodriguez Acosta, was arrested last week and indicted on 10 counts in relation to some alleged virtual kidnappings in California, Idaho, Minnesota and Texas, officials said.
Police believe many of the suspects involved in the calls with Acosta are making them from Mexico.
Officials said anyone who receives a similar call should hang up and attempt to reach the missing loved one before calling authorities.
However, hanging up the phone is easier said than done, as one LAPD officer can attest to. Sgt. Smith of the LAPD — who declined to give his first name — spoke at the news conference and was also a victim of the scam.
Smith said he was driving on a freeway when he answered a strange call and heard a female crying who claimed to be his daughter. She said she had been kidnapped, and although Smith said he could tell the voice was not one of his daughters, he was alarmed and assumed the callers may actually be telling the truth.
Smith said he got off the freeway and flagged down some Torrance police officers who were able to call his daughters' school and confirm they were safe while Smith stayed on the phone.
The call lasted an hour — with the callers initially demanding $1 million before agreeing to $350 — before Smith gave the phone to the Torrance officers and the suspects hung up.
"Why take the chance,'' Smith said when asked why he didn't hang up the phone. "I went through the steps I needed to go through to make sure my kids were safe.''
Hayes also said that anyone receiving a call should know that actual ransom kidnappings are rare, as the LAPD typically reports only 10 to 15 per year, and many of those are done by a close relative of the victim.