“This phone call is going to keep your daughter alive,” the caller said. “If you hang up, she dies. You understand that?”
That was just part of the frightening phone call a Virginia woman received while working at a consignment boutique. Although virtual kidnapping scams are not the most common type of fraudulent call, when they do occur, they are one of the scariest.
This type of scam has been reported nationwide, but it’s difficult to know just how many people it has effected, since not everyone reports it to police. Between 2013 and 2015, the FBI investigated hundreds of calls originating from Mexican prisons. The calls primarily targeted Spanish speakers, but recently kidnapping scheme calls have been made in English as well.
A harrowing phone call The owner of Babies and Bellies consignment shop, Dawn Luepke, answered the strange call one afternoon in Alexandria, Virginia. Other staff members witnessed her pick up the phone and answer.
“When I answered the phone and said hello, the first that happened was a little girl crying, was muffled and said, ‘Mommy, help me. They have kidnapped me. I’m blindfolded,’” she told Fox News. “So the first thing that I thought of was – ‘Where is my daughter?’”
When we’re placed in such stressful situations, fear takes over, and we often can’t think logically. It can be easy to believe that the voice on the other line is one’s daughter, even if it sounds nothing like her. Scammers take advantage of our natural fearful reactions to persuade us to do things we would normally never consider doing.
Real or fake? Nevertheless, Luepke wasn’t entirely convinced that the call was real, and she immediately put the call on speaker so that the entire staff could hear. Angelic Britton, Luepke’s intern, called 911.
“They asked if she called her daughter and I am like how is she supposed to call her daughter when she is on the phone with this guy,” said Britton. “Then they didn’t say anything after that and that is when I went to her and she told me to hang up, to start recording the guy on the phone.”
The scammer soon began to make more threats and give commands. “Let’s just start walking to your car, grab your phone. Let’s drive to the bank, okay? Get in your car,” he said.
Luepke did her best to remain calm. She stalled the scammer by pretending she didn’t have a car. This bought her time to mute the call and dial her daughter’s school on the shop’s landline phone. Officials at the school told her that her daughter was present at school and was perfectly fine. Relieved, she hung up on the scammer.
A fake scheme, but a real threat Luepke acknowledges the fact that the scammer was extremely convincing. “It was a real girl crying,” she told reporters. “She was interacting with me. It wasn’t a recording. And maybe she is part of whatever the scam is, but that little girl is a victim because she is being used in a scheme like this.”
That “scheme” was to get Luepke to hand over thousands of dollars in ransom money, most likely through wire transfers or untraceable gift cards. Luckily, she was with other women and had access to other phones and was able to make sure her daughter was ok, and to be able to call police.
“I was at a space where I could use another phone,” she said. “I could use another phone to call the school, to call 911. Whereas if you were just walking on the street and you didn’t have access to another phone, then you might just go right to a bank. It just felt like there was not a way to get help in this situation.”
Protect yourself Later, Luepke reported the phone call to police, who traced the call to Mexico. Virtual “kidnapping” phone calls are all too common in that country. Unfortunately, these types of scammers are rarely caught.
However, there are many things you can do to protect yourself from this dangerous scam.
First, install a quality call blocker on your phone to avoid receiving these types of calls in the first place. You can also protect your landline.
Avoid answering unknown or suspicious calls, especially when alone.
In case you do accidentally answer a similar call, here’s what the FBI suggests you do to protect yourself:
Don’t say your name
Listen to the alleged victim’s voice carefully
Don’t tell the caller any loved one’s names or personal information
Ask for proof, such as generic questions that only the alleged kidnap victim would know, like a pet’s name
Request to speak to your family member directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
Try to buy time while you get help and confirm your loved one is okay. Try to place a phone call to them.
Repeat the caller’s request. Tell him you are writing down the demand or that you need time to get things moving.
Don’t agree to pay a ransom.
If you think a real kidnapping is taking place, contact law enforcement immediately.