Late one night last June, a 34-year-old woman in Los Angeles answered her smartphone. Caller ID showed her sister's name, number and photo.
But her sister never breathed a word. A strange man was on the line, speaking rapid-fire with a Southern accent.
"We have your sister," he warned. "Nothing is going to happen to her if we get money. We just want money."
Tips from the FBI
If you are called and asked to pay ransom for a kidnapped victim, here's what the FBI advises:
- Stay calm and try to slow things down. Don't share information about yourself or your relatives.
- Ask to speak directly to the victim. Ask: “How do I know my loved one is okay?"
- Ask the kidnapped victim to call back from his or her cellphone. If the victim speaks, ask questions to which only he or she would know the answers.
- If you can't speak to the victim, if it is pertinent ask the caller to describe the vehicle the victim drives.
- While on the line with the caller, try to call the victim from another phone or via text or social media.
- To buy time, repeat the caller's request and say you are writing it down. Or say you need time to get things moving.
- Don't challenge or argue with the caller. Keep your voice low and steady.
Her sister, 32, lived in a nearby L.A. suburb. The two millennials from the Midwest had a habit of checking in with each other if they'd gone out separately with friends for the night.
They wanted to have each other's backs — and stay safe.
What might have been a routine check-in was anything but, as the older sister became entangled in an extortion scam — a crime the FBI says long has vexed people across the U.S. and is on the rise.
"Virtual kidnapping for ransom," the crime is called.
In this instance, as the bad actor demanded his pay-off, a voice in the background sounded like a woman "moaning into a gag … in pain," says the older sister, who asked not to be identified. The caller knew the women were sisters — and knew their names.
"In the moment, I panicked," she says. It was past 10 at night. "I thought she was kidnapped. I thought she was walking back to her car and got snatched.
"I thought, 'They are going to kill her if I don't give them money.'"
The older sister sent four payments totaling $1,750 using peer-to-peer (P2P) mobile payment apps, just as the “kidnapper” instructed. Once she made the first payment with Venmo, he said aloud: “Put the gun down. She's going to give us money.”