Scammers Use Fear in Virtual Extortion Scams
One mom was asked to pay for her daughter's "alleged" release
On an uncharacteristically rainy Southern California day, Kathie gets a call that will change her life. Her cellphone displays the caller as unknown. Even though she’s hesitant, Kathie decides to answer. On the line she hears screaming and a man claiming to have Kathie’s daughter. The man addresses both Kathie and her daughter by name, but something about the interaction feels off. Terrified, Kathie isn’t sure what to do next. Unbeknownst to Kathie, she has been drawn into a “virtual kidnapping,” a horrific extortion-based scam that’s claiming victims across the country. In the first half of this two-part episode, you’ll learn how these scams operate and why they’re so successful.
[00:00:01] Julie: This week on AARP's The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:04] It was the worst fear and panic that I have ever felt. How long is too long to be thinking that your child is in a fan speeding away from you and in harm's way?
[00:00:22] Julie: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm Julie Getz and with me is my cohost AARP Ambassador and Fraud Expert, Frank Abagnale. Frank, it's always so good to see you.
[00:00:32] Frank Abagnale: Thanks for having me.
[00:00:33] Julie: Frank, before we dive into today's episode, I'd like to share a brief story about our neighbor who almost became a victim to a utility scam. He was pretty shook up when he told us what happened, and it sounds like he got out just in the nick of time. Can you share with listeners what is the utility scam and how does it work?
[00:00:49] Frank Abagnale: Well a lot of times they call, and they say they're from your electric company and that you owe some back bills that you haven't paid on your electrical bill, and they're going to shut your power off at 6 o'clock this evening unless they get a payment. Again, we're back to the immediate payment, got to have it right now, so give me a credit card over the phone.
[00:01:06] Julie: Right, so they use a typical scare tactic.
[00:01:08] Frank Abagnale: And they say, well maybe I missed a bill. Maybe I skipped a payment. And it sounds so easy; just give me your credit card number over the phone, we'll take care of the bill, and it's no problem.
[00:01:17] Julie: I totally get it. I'd probably go grab my credit card out of my purse to avoid the power being cut. I mean we're busy, things like this can happen, right?
[00:01:24] Frank Abagnale: Yes. My wife, uh when I wrote the book "Scam Me If You Can," said, "You know, actually I've gotten those calls." She said, "Of course I ignore them. I know I don't owe any back money," but she said, "I could see where people would fall for that, especially under the threat that they're going to shut their power off."
[00:01:37] Julie: Ah, yes. I am with your wife 100%. So what should folks do if they do receive a call from someone claiming to be with their utility company?
[00:01:45] Frank Abagnale: You want to make sure that if you get a call like that, you actually call back the utility company and say, "I got a call that says it was from this person. They said I owed money." They just look up your account and say, "No ma'am, you're up to date. You don't owe any money, and we certainly didn't call you to threaten to shut off your power." That just takes a minute to verify that. About a year ago I was out at British Telecom which is the large telephone company in Great Britain which services all of Great Britain. They told me they get over 40,000 calls a day at their call center, people that are calling about those complaints saying somebody called and said they were from your company. Sometimes people call up and show up at the house. We need to check the electric box, or we need to check this, and there you always want to make sure you have ID of the person, has identification on them. If you're in doubt, call the utility company. I have a man out here; says he works for you. He had to come in my house to check this electrical box that I want to make sure before I let him in my house that what he's saying is true. Those are the kind of instances you just need to stop before you part with any money and verify that what they're telling you is true. But again, it's like any scam where I threaten you; IRS pay right now, Social Security, pay this moment, or I'm going to shut this off or I'm going to stop payment on this, and again, the red flag is, it's got to be immediate. So you can't even say, "Well look, could I just drive down there today? I'll just drive down, you have an office right down the street from me, I'll just come down and pay the back bill." "No, no, can't do that. You have to do that on the telephone." Well that, you know, that's that red flag again.
[00:03:15] Julie: So if you do get a call like this and it sounds suspicious, just hang up the phone. And if you have questions, call the utility company. But the big takeaway here, folks, is that you hang up the phone.
[00:03:26] Frank Abagnale: Hang up the phone.
[00:03:26] Julie: Hang it up. Well, today we're going to talk about virtual kidnappings. Now at their core, they're telephone extortion scams that share similar tactics to a grandparent scam where the fraudsters on the other end of the phone line call and prey on your fear to separate you from your money. To think that someone we love may be in mortal danger and that their life hangs on the line by our actions is a pretty heavy weight to bear.
[00:03:51] Julie: On this episode, we're going to hear from someone who shares her story about how she was the targeted victim of this scam, how her life has been flipped upside down in what she calls the most terrifying experience of her life. Kathie Gross lives with her husband Mark and their 13-year-old daughter in Orange County, California.
[00:04:09] Kathie Gross: My husband is an architect. I'm a homemaker. And we have one daughter, Jordan. She's amazing. She plays volleyball, she's very artistic, she does a lot of drawing, and we just adore her and life's pretty good.
[00:04:24] Julie: Good. So Kathie, I just want you to take me back to that day, to that day when your life felt like it changed forever. Tell me what happened.
[00:04:33] Kathie Gross: It was a normal school day, it was raining, it was, it was kind of a cold morning. Up at 7:30, you know, breakfast, out the door. I dropped Jordan at school. I drove to a spin class, um, did that for an hour. Came out, got in the car and started to drive down the main street that goes back towards my house. And I received a call that came across the screen and said, "No Caller ID."
[00:05:02] Julie: Most of us don't pick up if we don't know the number, and Kathie wouldn't usually do that either, but today was not a typical day.
[00:05:08] Kathie Gross: I had been trying to get a piece of jewelry back from a house that we had rented in Palm Springs over the summer, and the gentleman I was working with, his calls were coming through, "No Caller ID." So that prompted me to pick up the phone.
[00:05:22] Kathie Gross: Hello.
[00:05:23] Kathie Gross: I immediately heard my daughter's voice. "Mom?" very panicked, "Mom?" And I responded, "Yes?"
[00:05:33] Julie: The call catches Kathie off guard. It sounds like her daughter Jordan who she dropped off just an hour before.
[00:05:40] Kathie Gross: What I heard next was just, you know, insanity. Um, "Mom, I have a problem." And I said, "Yes?" And um, "They took me. I'm, I'm in a van. I don't know where I am. There aren't any windows." And I was speechless. And in that moment where I didn't say anything, she responded back, "Mom? Mom?" You know, just, "Are you there?" And then I said, "Oh my God, Jordan, where are you?" "I don't know, I think I'm on the freeway. There are no windows." All this time I'm thinking this is her.
[00:06:16] Julie: Kathie's head is swirling with fear.
[00:06:18] Kathie Gross: I heard the phone being transferred almost like a grabbing of a phone, you know, if somebody was on the call and somebody grabbed the phone away from you. I remember feeling like there was some scuffling going on in the background. A man's voice came on the line and he said, "Is this Kathie Gross?" He had an accent. I wasn't sure, you know, it, was this a Mexican accent? Was this Middle Eastern? And I wasn't able to really place where the accent came from, but he had a very menacing voice, and I said, "Yes, it is." And he said, "Listen, Missy, you'd better not hang up. You'd better not call anyone. We have him."
[00:06:55] Julie: Him? Suddenly Kathie feels unsure.
[00:06:58] Kathie Gross: My daughter's name is Jordan, but clearly, she's a, she's a girl. So that triggered me to realize that possibly they didn't have her. That, on top of the fact that the security at her school is so great. She has a drop-off area at school. There's the head of middle school that stands outside and greets the kids and they walk through a gate and that's it. The gate closes, it locks, so a very secure campus.
[00:07:22] Julie: Kathie goes with her gut and makes a split second decision to do the opposite of what the kidnappers demanded.
[00:07:28] Kathie Gross: I thought, I'm going to hang up. That was a big decision, but I just felt calling her a him and just could not in my mind fathom how they could have pulled her out of school.
[00:07:40] Julie: Right.
[00:07:41] Kathie Gross: So I just took a chance, and I thought, if they have her, they will call me back. They will think I drove through that area or possibly my phone went dead, and in that time, I can call the school and confirm that she's in class.
[00:07:55] Julie: By now, Kathie's heart is racing wildly. She grips the steering wheel and speeds back to Jordan's school dialing as she drives.
[00:08:03] Kathie Gross: I called the school. I think at that point I was crying and just said, "I just got this call that somebody has Jordan, please let me know that she's in class." Oh, you know, "Oh my, let me, of course hold on." And then silence. And silence. As I'm on hold, I'm getting calls, "No Caller ID." They're calling me back on the other line, and I just remained on hold for, at that point I'm going to say probably about 5 minutes which seemed like forever, and at that point I hung up and called back and screamed, "You can't leave me on hold. What's going on?" "Let me transfer you to the head of middle school."
[00:08:46] Julie: Oh my...
[00:08:46] Kathie Gross: And so at that point, I realized they can't find her. And they couldn't find her because she was not where she was supposed to be. So they were panicking at the school.
[00:08:55] Julie: By now, Kathie isn't the only one panicked. The school has gone on complete lockdown as security guards spread throughout the school.
[00:09:03] Kathie Gross: I am now at a stoplight, and I'm sitting at this stoplight considering running the red light, just, you know, losing my mind.
[00:09:13] Julie: Five minutes later, Kathie pulls up to the school hysterical with worry.
[00:09:18] Kathie Gross: I jumped out of the car and I ran towards the school, and the woman at the front desk came running out and just said, "We have her." She had stayed back in one class to work with her teacher and was supposed to be in PE, but she was still in English. So she wasn't, she wasn't where she was supposed to be.
[00:09:35] Julie: Kathie and her daughter share a tearful reunion. But in her mind, Kathie's already starting to wonder how close she was to falling victim to this scam.
[00:09:48] Kathie Gross: In hindsight I think I might have been a little bit vulnerable to thinking that it was her, because she had been having some things going on at school that were troubling her, and I thought perhaps something had happened and she was calling me upset. So I was almost not surprised to be getting an anxious upset call from her. But it was the worst fear and panic that I have ever felt. How long is too long to be thinking that your child is in a van speeding away from you and in harm's way? It's, 15 minutes is too long.
[00:10:26] Julie: Within hours of the incident, Kathie's on a mission to warn others about the nerve-wracking fraud, but is shocked that officials seem indifferent to her pain.
[00:10:35] Kathie Gross: I went to the police department, and they just kind of dismissed me and said, you know, "Just be glad you didn't send money," and I left and went home feeling very victimized. I felt, I felt like something absolutely horrible had happened to me, and I was so exhausted I had to lie down. I was kind of ill and very, very tired.
[00:10:59] Julie: So it sounds like the response you got from the local police department certainly didn't help any.
[00:11:02] Kathie Gross: I really could not disconnect from it. I wasn't sleeping, it's difficult when somebody is telling you that they have their child and they say really horrible and frightening things.
[00:11:13] Julie: When we spoke earlier, you told me that the fear lingered with you for some time. Can you tell me more about that?
[00:11:18] Kathie Gross: Yes. About a week later my daughter was home sick, and we have a service locally where you can have a doctor come to your house. And I had a doctor scheduled. This particular doctor um, called, "No Caller ID." I had run down to the store to get some medication for her and the call came in, "No Caller ID" from this doctor that was scheduled to be there. And it just threw me into a panic, because I was trying to reach Jordan who was at home and I couldn't get a hold of her and this "No Caller ID" is coming in. So it's just this fearful feeling that I would assume anyone that had been a victim of a crime would have that feeling.
[00:12:03] Julie: I can imagine that every time your phone rings and a "No Caller ID" comes up...
[00:12:06] Kathie Gross: Oh yeah,
[00:12:07] Julie: ... that it must trigger something in your body.
[00:12:08] Kathie Gross: It still does.
[00:12:09] Julie: Like mentally and physically just how...
[00:12:13] Kathie Gross: Needless to say I never answer those calls anymore.
[00:12:16] Julie: Don't.
[00:12:16] Kathie Gross: I mean if you don't know who it is don't, don't answer the call.
[00:12:19] Julie: No.
[00:12:19] Kathie Gross: They can leave a voice mail if it's important. Yeah, "No Caller ID" not, not a good thing.
[00:12:24] Julie: So how did you heal from this? Like what was it that helped you take your power back?
[00:12:29] Kathie Gross: I felt like I had to let as many people know as I possibly could. I called all of the school districts and sent emails asking them to please send out broadcasts; warn parents. I called all of the news agencies locally. I called the FBI. I was fortunate enough to connect with a reporter with the Orange County Register and there was a great article on the front page that went out about virtual kidnapping, which was amazing. I, you know, so many people read that. And then a year later, just this past April, there were two other families in the city of Laguna Beach that were victims of this virtual kidnapping scam; however, they did not want to talk to the media, and the media was very interested in getting the word out. The detective that was uh working on their investigation called me and asked me if I'd be willing to speak with these reporters, and within about a 36 hour period of time I did interviews with all of the local news stations and then it was on The Today Show, which was amazing, because I just, I constantly think about how many people saw that and if they got that call, they would hang up. So I did everything I could to let as many people know that this was happening, because I felt that was the only way to stop someone from having that same experience.
[00:13:55] Julie: Kathie, this is an incredible story and very powerful. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.
[00:14:00] Kathie Gross: I appreciate the chance to talk with you. Thank you.
[00:14:03] Julie: Thank you.
[00:14:04] Julie: My next guest is also determined to get the word out about the virtual kidnapping scam. Her name is Samantha Kelly. Samantha's a business tech editor and helps oversee daily tech coverage at CNN.
[00:14:15] Samantha Kelly: What gets me excited is not just the fact that you have a new gadget or a new service or something like that, but how these technologies really change the way we live, whether it's for the good or the bad.
[00:14:27] Julie: And that just plays right into what we're talking about today. So how did you find this story, and how did you start hearing about virtual kidnapping?
[00:14:34] Samantha Kelly: I got an email from somebody with a really terrifying story that had just happened to him and his family, just a few days before. And the story sort of resonated with him, and he said, "I want to tell you want just had happened to my family." I changed a lot of the, the names in the story just to protect their privacy, but we will call them the Baker family, and the son is Jake in this case, and he's probably in his late 20s or so, and he told me how earlier that week his father was at work and got a call from his number, from Jake's number, and it was almost like a scene out of a horror movie; said somebody was on the other line and said, "I have your son, I'm going to kill him, and I'm going to need you to do all of these things in order for him to be safe."
[00:15:24] Julie: Wow, so the number that was calling was actually their son's phone number?
[00:15:27] Samantha Kelly: Exactly. So if you're going about your day and you wouldn't necessarily stop to question whether or not this is real when it's coming from a number that you trust to further prove that they are real and doing a kidnapping.
[00:15:42] Julie: So what did the Bakers do?
[00:15:43] Samantha Kelly: They ended up going to several CVSs and taking prepaid cards for a couple hundred dollars each, and relaying the number to the scammer on the phone, and then finally at the very end, they hung up the phone, they went over to their son's house and Jake, the son, was inside cooking dinner and nothing was wrong.
[00:16:03] Julie: Samantha, as a tech editor, I'm sure you see a lot of trends. Is this scam on the rise?
[00:16:08] Samantha Kelly: Even a colleague of mine here at CNN, her boyfriend's grandmother was recently, this happened to them. She got a phone call about her son was in jail and needed the money immediately. And anecdotally I've noticed that a lot of like parents or grandparents are specifically being called. This is a part of a growing trend. It isn't necessarily new. It's been happening for a few years at this point, but it is increasingly common, and what's appealing about this from a criminal standpoint, it's a quick way to make money, and it's certainly a lot easier to conduct something like this, a virtual kidnapping than a real one.
[00:16:46] Julie: What about this story and this type of scam did you find most surprising?
[00:16:50] Samantha Kelly: I think one of the most interesting things about this trend is that it is more of a human psychology issue, that the fact that people can get swept away in the moment and these scammers know that people are really busy. But if you're getting a call from somebody and they're giving you certain information, why wouldn't you believe them? What I thought also was really interesting is a lot of people are not reporting virtual kidnappings, because they're embarrassed, or it's super traumatic and they don't want to talk about it. This is something that is really emotional and really hard on families. People, you know, seek therapy afterwards. This is impacting people in really harmful ways, more than just losing a couple hundred dollars.
[00:17:38] Julie: Um-hmm. And we talk about this a lot here at AARP. We've learned that regardless of the tactic, scammers know that getting their targets in an emotional state is key to pulling off the scam. It's what we call "getting the targets under the ether." So, now let's transition to how difficult it is to track these scammers.
[00:17:54] Samantha Kelly: So I spoke to an FBI official who's been overseeing this issue, and right now they've determined, and again, this isn't necessarily new, but there's been an increase in the last few years that the majority of virtual kidnapping calls originate from Mexico, and a lot of them are coming from within prisons there.
[00:18:14] Julie: Huh. Mexican prisons.
[00:18:16] Samantha Kelly: Exactly, yes, yep. Originally the calls were targeting Spanish speakers in certain cities like Los Angeles and Houston, and now it's spread across other cities in the US, and of course, to English speakers as well.
[00:18:32] Julie: That's all really interesting, Samantha. And we're going to learn more about the connection to Mexican prisons in our next episode when we talk to FBI Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot. In the meantime, thank you so much for being on the show, and for everything that you're doing to get the word out there and educate people about this scam.
[00:18:49] Samantha Kelly: All right. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
[00:18:52] Julie: And now I'm back in the studio with Frank. Frank, it just seems that many victims of virtual kidnappings are completely unaware that this crime even exists. They react as any parent would when faced with a potential threat to their child. I mean, virtual kidnappers take advantage of parents' fears, and most of the time they get away with it. What do you think is the best way to protect yourself from this virtual kidnapping scam?
[00:19:15] Frank Abagnale: Well first of all, I think it's important to try to remain calm and slow the situation down. Do not share any information about your family during the call and don't use the alleged victim's name. If you hear the victim's voice or screaming in the background, try to ascertain if it really is your child. Attempt to contact the kidnapped victim via phone, text, or a messaging app or social media to see where they are and if they are safe and also try to speak to the victim.
[00:19:45] Julie: Got it, just try to slow everything down.
[00:19:47] Frank Abagnale: Right, and you might want to ask the caller to call back using the victim's phone or try to buy time by repeating the caller's demands and telling them to call you, you need to write things down or need time to complete the transaction. Uh, you don't want to challenge or argue with the caller, but I would say it's important to say things to verify, okay, if you actually have my daughter or my son, what do they look like? What color hair do they have? What color eyes do they have? How tall are they? Can you ask them a question about where they go to school or something like that, that most of the time they don't have that information, obviously because they don't have the person, so that's where it gets real sticky. They can't answer those questions.
[00:20:29] Julie: Hmm, and I know here at AARP we do encourage folks to hang up, and then try to confirm that your child or loved one is safe, but if you do find yourself in a situation where your instinct tells you to just stay on, you can't hang up yet, then just remember to ask questions. Try to slow everything down, really try and verify.
[00:20:47] Frank Abagnale: Right, stop and, like we do in all the scams. Stop and verify. Clear your head and ask, you know, what's her name, 'cause you saw her going to school that day or you saw them a few hours ago. What clothes are they wearing. See, if it was real, they'd know all that.
[00:21:00] Julie: What about driving to the nearest police station or, I mean is there somewhere they can, someone should go for help?
[00:21:07] Frank Abagnale: You can drive to the nearest police station, explain what's happening, so that someone's with you, uh that maybe can, in case they call back or something like that, but I think a lot of times you, I personally believe a lot of these could be settled if you just stay calm and ask the specific questions instead of panicking and believe you've got to pay right away. Could they really have this person or are they actually in school? So if they were in school, my first call would be to the school, "Is my daughter or son in their classroom?"
[00:21:34] Julie: Just like Kathie did.
[00:21:35] Frank Abagnale: Right, exactly.
[00:21:36] Julie: Um-hmm. And when you hang up the phone and they may call back over and over again, but eventually they'll stop calling, they're going to try and call the next person, right?
[00:21:43] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, they have thousands of people to call, so see, if they realize you’re onto them, the minute you start asking what do they look like, what color eyes do they have, they're going to hang up and they're probably not going to call you back.
[00:21:53] Julie: Sure, great. Okay, everyone. Stop and verify. Frank, thank you so much, as always, it's great to have you on the show.
[00:21:59] Frank Abagnale: Thanks, Julie.
[00:22:00] Julie: We'll be back next week for part 2 of this special episode, "Covering Virtual Kidnapping Scams."
[00:22:05] Frank Abagnale: We'll see you next week.
[00:22:08] Julie: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Thank you to our team of scambusters, Producer Brook Ellis, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez, and of course, my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP - The Perfect Scam, I'm Julie Getz.
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TIPS: If you think you’ve been a victim of a scam or would like to report fraud call The Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Anyone can become the victim of a scam, it’s important to be vigilant and know your vulnerabilities. For instance, if you are looking for a job you are more vulnerable to a work-at-home scam.
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