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The Virtual Kidnapping of a Gymnast

When a mother gets a call claiming her daughter has been kidnapped, she and her ex-husband race against time to save their child

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Full Transcript

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] Brian Johnson: I’m driving, I'm speeding down the freeway in a panic. I’m just trying to get to the gymnastics gym. If they came and kidnapped her, that means they came and grabbed her out of the gym. I'm sweating, I'm getting emotional. It’s all these emotions, I need to get to my child and figure out what's going on. Why this is going on. 

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:26] Bob: Imagine your morning being interrupted by a phone call from someone who says, they've kidnapped your daughter and if you don't pay up right away, they're going to start cutting off your child's body parts? Well today, you're going to hear from a mom and a dad who went through that exact torture, and you're going to hear the criminals too, because when Sheratan Johnson got that awful call, she happened to have set up her phone to record all her calls for work, so here is what that awful phone call sounded like to her. And what happened to her 10-year-old daughter and their whole extended family.

[00:01:03] Sheratan Johnson: It was around midmorning, yes.

[00:01:07] Bob: And where were you?

[00:01:08] Sheratan Johnson: I was at home. I had just come back from running an errand.

[00:01:12] Bob: You probably didn't recognize the number, right?

[00:01:14] Sheratan Johnson: So I didn't recognize the number, but the number stated it was from Singapore, so I was used to having people call me from different parts of the world.

[00:01:25] Bob: So, so you had to answer because you might have to answer for work, right?

[00:01:28] Sheratan Johnson: Absolutely.

[00:01:30] Bob: When she answers the phone, this is what Sheratan hears:

[00:01:34] Virtual Kidnapper: We have your daughter in our van. We kidnapped her. This is about a kidnapping, okay?

[00:01:40] Bob: That's the voice of the criminal who said he had Sheratan's child. I asked her to talk me through the phone call.

[00:01:48] Bob: Okay, and what was the first thing that the caller said?

[00:01:50] Sheratan Johnson: They said, "Hello, is this Sheratan Johnson?" And I said, "Yes, this is she." And then he said, "This is about a kidnapping," and I was just dumbfounded. I, I wasn't sure what to say after that, so I stuttered pretty badly.

[00:02:13] Bob: Taken completely by surprise, Sheratan does a quick inventory. Her three kids are all out of the house, busy. She is alone.

[00:02:22] Sheratan Johnson: He didn't announce which one it was. At that time, all of my children were, you know, not in my home. One was in Denver, Colorado, she was at a volleyball tournament, the other one whom I thought was at gymnastics practice, and the other one was at work.

[00:02:41] Bob: And right at that moment, she remembers a warning that parents had recently received from her 10-year-old daughter's gymnastics program.

[00:02:48] Sheratan Johnson: The gymnasium had reported that there was a strange van in the parking lot. And that it had been sitting there for about a day. And they were wondering if it belonged to any of the parents or anything like that.

[00:03:08] Bob: Like recently? Like right before this all happened.

[00:03:10] Sheratan Johnson: Right before this happened, yes.

[00:03:12] Bob: Wow. Okay.

[00:03:13] Sheratan Johnson: The day before this happened. And so I'm thinking that, oh my God, they, you know, may have taken her and put her in that van, so I was, that's what I was thinking.

[00:03:26] Bob: And right then, she hears a voice that sends her heartrate soaring.

[00:03:30] Sheratan Johnson: It said something like, "Mommy, Mom." Because my kids do call me Mommy. And I thought perhaps maybe it could have been one of them. I just wasn't sure. It, it, it sounded like it could have been, but I, I just wasn't quite sure. I was in complete shock.

[00:03:48] Bob: And a moment later, there is a terrible threat.

[00:03:51] Virtual Kidnapper: Pay attention, pay attention. Do you think it's necessary for me to cut off one of her body parts?

[00:03:58] Sheratan Johnson: He told me that, and this was, you know, pretty, pretty, you know, bad. He told me that this is about a kidnapping, and he said that, you know, listen to me because would you like for me to cut off one of her body parts and send it to you?

[00:04:19] Bob: Oh my God.

[00:04:22] Sheratan Johnson: Yeah.

[00:04:24] Bob: So, what do you even say to a think like that?

[00:04:27] Sheratan Johnson: I, I told him, no, sir. No, he had my attention fully at that moment.

[00:04:33] Bob: The caller says he knows where she is. And he has demands to make.

[00:04:39] Sheratan Johnson: So he told me to give him my location. He said he knew where I was, but he wanted my cross streets, and I told him. He said, you know, "Don't lie, don't lie to me." And I said, "No, no, I'm not lying to you. Here are my cross streets." But for some reason he said that he knew where I was. And that he wanted me to get money and take it from my account, and send him money if I wanted to see my daughter safe again.

[00:05:16] Virtual Kidnapper: How much money do you have? How much money can you get within 30 minutes so I can help you out and let your daughter go?

[00:05:25] Sheratan Johnson: I don't have money, but I mean I could probably come up with like 5,000.

[00:05:31] Bob: You can hear in Sheratan's voice that she's terrified. Her heart is beating fast, and she's thinking fast too. While still talking to the criminal on her home phone, she uses her cellphone to call her ex-husband, Brian, the father of her children. Afraid of alarming the kidnappers, she basically just lets Brian listen in on her phone call, occasionally trying to text him so he'll understand what's going on, but that doesn't really work.

[00:05:58] Sheratan Johnson: I know that he probably didn't understand what I was saying. So I tried to text him, and it came out all wrong, that one of the girls had been kidnapped.

[00:06:12] Bob: But you actually had, you know, sort of like on television where you had two phones, one to each ear, is that right?

[00:06:17] Sheratan Johnson: I did.

[00:06:19] Bob: Across town, Sheratan's ex-husband, just sitting in his office, his workday has just started.

[00:06:24] Brian Johnson: I remember I was in a meeting at work, and Sheratan called me, and I was, I was really at the tail end of the meeting, I decided I'd just decline the call and decided I'll call her; I will call her back. And she called me right back, and you normally, when she calls me right back, that's usually something more urgent, so I kinda got up a little bit early and, and walked out. And so when she, after, when I said, "Hello," and she just said, I just heard this man's voice in the background. I think she had me on another phone, and, and, and had him on speaker. And I was like, you know, you know "What is this, what's going on?" And, and she said, so, under her breath she said, "Somebody's got (beep)," our youngest daughter. And I was like, "What?" You know, I, I just had to kinda process a little bit, and she said, "Somebody's... they, they've got (beep), they want money." And I, I'm sitting there trying to, what, what are you talking about?"

[00:07:15] Bob: Brian listens intently and tries to make sense out of what he's hearing, but it's impossible.

[00:07:21] Brian Johnson: I did hear the guy, and so I really couldn't make out exactly what he was saying, but you, yes, you could hear the guy.

[00:07:28] Bob: And did they tell her not to call anyone else? Like not to call the police, right.

[00:07:33] Brian Johnson: They said, "Don't call the police." I think she kinda...

[00:07:36] Bob: So were they, were they mad, were they mad that she called you?

[00:07:38] Brian Johnson: I think she muted them for a second. And that's why she really couldn't talk.

[00:07:43] Bob: At this point, Brian calls his mom. It was grandma's job to bring the 10-year-old to gymnastics that morning, to confirm that she actually got there. And when grandma says, yes, Brian races down to the garage and takes off for the gymnastics studio.

[00:07:58] Brian Johnson: And so the first thing I do, I just grabbed my keys, and I'm like, okay, let me see what's going on. So I run down to the garage and I'm actually in, at that time I was working in, right outside of downtown Dallas. And so I jump in the car, and I'm driving down 35. We get, you know, I'm, I'm driving, I'm speeding down the freeway, you know, just, just, just kinda in a panic. At this time I'm not talking to Sheratan. I'm, I'm just trying to get to the gymnastics gym. If they came and kidnapped her, that means they came and grabbed her out of the gym. And so I'm, you know, I'm like, well why hasn't the coach called me, why haven't I got a call? So I'm just, I'm just kinda processing it, you know, and I know I'm driving...

[00:08:39] Bob: But while you're thinking about all this, though, your first urge and which I think makes sense to anyone, is to just get there.

[00:08:44] Brian Johnson: Yeah, yeah, I just, yeah, I'm trying to just get there. I just remember kinda saying to myself, if the cops pull me, get behind me, we're all going to this gym. I mean that was just kinda in my mind. Like I'm not pulling over, we're going to, we're going, I'm just going to take the whole entourage of, whatever city is chasing me, and we're going to get, get there and we'll figure it out once we get there.

[00:09:01] Bob: Well then what is your heartrate like?

[00:09:04] Brian Johnson: Oh, my heartrate's at a thousand. I mean when I'm driving there, I'm sweating, I'm getting emotional, I'm just, I'm just, I, I just, I, you know I, I don't know what, they came and grabbed her. What, what is going on? You know, I, I just, I don't, you know I, I, there's all these emotions that you're driving of, I need to get to my child and figure out what's going on. Why this is going on.

[00:09:26] Bob: Meanwhile, Sheratan is driving to the bank as ordered by the criminals.

[00:09:31] Bob: And you know, it seemed like, you know, you could barely get the words out on the phone call, you were so upset.

[00:09:35] Sheratan Johnson: I was very upset, and I was very scared.

[00:09:40] Bob: So he says, okay, okay, go, go where? Where, where does he send you?

[00:09:47] Sheratan Johnson: Well, I told him, I didn't have any cash on me, so I would have to go to an ATM, and, you know, get money from an account that I had. And so I'm nervously driving to the nearest ATM at a local bank, and I was very, very nervous. And I went to the bank. I got there, I was just, I was really fumbling around trying to figure out how to even put my card in the ATM?

[00:10:24] Bob: She takes out as much cash as she can get her hands on from the ATM, and then keeps following the criminal's instructions.

[00:10:32] Sheratan Johnson: And then he tells me to go to a specific location, it was like a, a check cashing place.

[00:10:44] Bob: And what did he want you to do there?

[00:10:45] Sheratan Johnson: He wanted me to take whatever money that I was able to get and make a deposit. He gave me information and I deposited money into a specific account, and it went to Mexico. However, I thought that the people at the check cashing place were also in on this whole ordeal, so I go in, and I'm looking at, you know, people's faces, and I'm like, oh my God, they're watching me as well. They know what I'm there for.

[00:11:23] Bob: Oh my God, that sounds just terrifying.

[00:11:27] Sheratan Johnson: Yes.

[00:11:28] Bob: So the money gets to Mexico, but it's not enough. The criminal isn't satisfied. He starts demanding more cash.

[00:11:37] Sheratan Johnson: Once I wired the money, and I go back and I get into my car, he says, "You've got to get more money." And I told him I wasn't able to access any of my money, and he tells me that I needed to find a way to get more money.

[00:12:02] Bob: So what was your next step?

[00:12:05] Sheratan Johnson: (sigh) It was so bad. I, I actually went to my in-laws and I just drive up and I had this whole picture in my head that, you know, maybe they could see me or some kind of way they could see me and I made it very audible that I was speaking to another person, and I saw her as she, you know, my mother-in-law, she pulled in and I said, "Hey, I need money for something. It's really important, can you help me?"

[00:12:40] Bob: As Brian is speeding down Highway 35, his mom calls him to talk about the panicked conversation she just had with Sheratan, and there is no mistaking what's happening. Sheratan is sure their 10-year-old daughter has been kidnapped.

[00:12:55] Brian Johnson: My mom calls me, like, "Sheratan was here for money." She said, "Yeah, there's somebody on the phone with Sheratan telling..." my wife, they've kidnapped her. Sheratan's still kind of in a panic, and you know, there's really no talking to her at this point because she's just, she doesn't, you know, she doesn't know what's real anymore at this point, and neither, nobody does. I don't know, even know what's real.

[00:13:13] Bob: Sheratan doesn't know what's real. She's not even sure it's really her ex-husband that she's texting with.

[00:13:19] Sheratan Johnson: So this entire time, I was actually answering messages from my ex-husband, and he's texting me. It was so weird because I wasn't sure if it was him.

[00:13:35] Bob: The phone call makes Brian hit the accelerator even heavier. He's got to get to the gym which he thinks is now a crime scene so he can figure out what's going on. Fortunately, he's not pulled over by police on the way, in fact, there are no police anywhere.

[00:13:51] Brian Johnson: So anyway, so I, I get to the gym, and I pull in, and I'm kinda looking around, there's no cars there, I'm, I'm expecting police to be there, I'm expecting a whole bunch of stuff, and nothing's there. I'm like, oh, what's, that's weird. So I knock on the door, 'cause they keep the doors locked. I knock on the door, and eventually the coach comes to the gym, comes to the door. I said, "Is (beep) here?" She said, "Yeah, (beep)'s here. You want her?" I said, "No, no, just, just leave her there." So I just sat there in the parking lot, I'm thinking, maybe, now I'm thinking maybe they are holding Sheratan hostage. And they're coming up there, they've got her at gunpoint, and they were going to come and take the kid, and I'm like, well at this point, that's not going to happen. So I'm, I'm going to, I'm going to be here just to see what's going on.

[00:14:30] Bob: Maybe that's one angle. Maybe Sheratan has been kidnapped. Or maybe he's got the story wrong and one of his other kids have been kidnapped. So he keeps asking questions.

[00:14:40] Brian Johnson: Then I'm thinking, well, what about my other two daughters? Maybe, maybe, maybe Sheratan's just thinking of one daughter, and there's another one. So my oldest daughter, she worked for American Airlines at a call center. So I, I called her. I said, "Is, hey, are you, are you at work?" I said, "Everything okay?" She said, "Yeah, everything's fine." I said, she said, "I'm here with," and at that time she, that was my first grandchild, and so she had my grandchild. She said, "Oh yeah, we're, we're, I'm going to go drop off at daycare," and so and so. So I killed two birds with one stone: they're okay. So I'm like, okay, alright. So okay, my third, my middle daughter, at this time she was in Denver, Colorado, at a volleyball camp at the University of Denver with, and she went with one of her teammates. I said, okay, let me just call there. So I called the mother of the, of, of the, of her teammate, and just said, "Hey, how's it going down there?" And she said, "Oh, fine. I'm sitting here just watching them, they're both playing." So I said, okay. So now I've confirmed all the kids are okay, and so I'm, I'm still in the parking lot, I'm just like, okay, she's going to come up here and you know I, I was, is she going to come up here and grab the kids or, or what's going to happen?

[00:15:46] Bob: So Brian sits at the gym and waits.

[00:15:49] Brian Johnson: I sat there for about 15 minutes expecting her to pull up any minute. So I sat there and just waiting, you know, I'm, I'm ready to fight at, you know I've got, I've got a weapon in my hand, I got a little tire iron in my hand, I'm like I'm, I'm going to hurt, whoever's there, I'm going to hurt him, I'm ready, I'm ready to go. Here we go.

[00:16:05] Bob: You've got a tire iron in your hand, you're ready for a fight.

[00:16:07] Brian Johnson: I'm ready to go, yes, I'm ready, at this point I'm ready to fight. I knew, I knew the door was locked to the gym, so I knew he couldn't get in if there was somebody there. So we're, I'm either just going to be dead and or whatever, or we're both going to be dead, but you're getting to her. You're coming over my dead body type scenario. You're not going to get to her.

[00:16:28] Bob: But then Brian starts to question the whole situation. Is the kidnapper really about to show up or what if he has the whole thing wrong? So, Brian hatches a plan worthy of a TV show. He reaches out to his ex-wife with a message that only she would understand.

[00:16:46] Brian Johnson: I text Sheratan, I said, "Hey, are, you know, uh, you still got the guy on the phone?" She said, "The guy's on the phone." I said, "Okay," but I still wasn't confident. I said, "Meet me at the first house that we, that we purchased." This was, uh when we were still married, we, we purchased a house in 2001. I said, "Meet me at that place." I mean if, if, if, "you don't to tell him where you're going, you just drive there."

[00:17:09] Bob: Here's how Sheratan remembers that moment.

[00:17:11] Sheratan Johnson: And he says, "Do you remember where we first bought our first home?" And I answered, "Yes." And I'm trying to text and listen to this, this person on the line as well, so it just got confusing and very jumbled in my mind. But I told him, yes. And once I, once I left my uh mother-in-law's home, he tells me, "Go there and don't say anything. Go there now." And I text back, I said, "Why?" And he said, "Just do it."

[00:17:53] Bob: Just do it. Brian tells Sheratan to go to their first home for a rendezvous. He figures that the best way to decipher what's really going on. Sheratan doesn't really know what to think. Maybe Brian's in on it too? Maybe he's been kidnapped. Maybe he's just confused. But she decides to take Brian upon his plan.

[00:18:13] Sheratan Johnson: By the time I drove there, and I was still on the line with this deranged person that, you know I, I thought, you know, everything was crashing all at once, I thought that maybe my ex-husband had been taken as well, because I get to our first home that we purchased, and it was kind of boarded up, I think, and it had a, a sign on the door, so I guess whoever had purchased it at the time, they went into foreclosure. And I'm thinking, oh my God, he's in there in that house and you know, they're holding him hostage, and I was seriously about, about to pull off and leave.

[00:18:59] Bob: Oh my God, so you pull up to a house that's abandoned and boarded up, and it looks like maybe it's a kidnapping scene.

[00:19:05] Sheratan Johnson: Yes. Exactly.

[00:19:06] Bob: And, and you got there before he did, right?

[00:19:09] Sheratan Johnson: I did. I did. About maybe, maybe two or three minutes later, I see someone kind of, you know, flashing their lights and, you know, driving really deranged, and it was him, it was my ex-husband. And he tells me, he jumps out of the car really quickly, he tells me, "Get off the phone! Get off the phone now!" And I was like, "No, no. They, they have, they have, they have our daughter." And my phone accidentally, you know the, the line disconnects, and I'm, I'm thinking, oh my God, they're, they're going to kill her, because the line disconnected, you know how you have a dropped call, so the call dropped, and I'm thinking, oh my God, I didn't do what he wanted me to do. And the call dropped, and I'm telling my ex-husband, I, "They're, they're going to kill her, they're going to kill her." And then the phone rings again. And then I proceed to, I was, "Hello?" And I apologize, I was like, "The phone, the call dropped, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." And my ex-husband proceeds to tell me, "Get off the phone."

[00:20:25] Bob: Brian is screaming at her; the criminal is screaming at her. It's chaos.

[00:20:30] Sheratan Johnson: There was a lot of things that were going on. I heard a lot of background noise. At one point he told me that he was the second-in-command for that particular organization, and that he hates to spill innocent blood. And I proceed to tell him that my kid is a good kid. And with him constantly in my ear just saying things to, to keep me going on the phone, that's when I finally hung up. He was still talking.

[00:21:05] Bob: As Brian is pulling up to their old home, well he figures he's begun to figure out the truth of what's going on.

[00:21:13] Brian Johnson: I was getting to that point to where it's a scam, because I'm like, this is, this is, this is weird, 'cause, you know, as, as my emotions were coming back down, I just remember pulling up to the curb, as a matter of fact, I pulled up in the middle of the street, and I opened the door, and I'm like, "Hang up the f-ing phone." And just, she's like, "I don't know. I don't know." I says, "Hang up the phone." As a matter of fact, so I, I remember her, someone was driving by and it looked like two couples fighting and everything, 'cause I'm just standing with my hand shaking like, "Put the phone down." You know I talk with my hands. So you know, I'm like, "Put the, put the phone down. Hang it up. That is," you know, all this other stuff, and so um...

[00:21:48] Bob: Well I mean I, I can understand, you know, from her perspective, well first of all, she doesn't know who to believe.

[00:21:54] Brian Johnson: Exactly.

[00:21:55] Bob: In fact, Sheratan is basically in shock.

[00:21:58] Brian Johnson: She's just bawling. She is crying and so it took me, you know, we're kind of sitting there on the side of the road, in this subdivision, right in the entry point of this subdivision, right up the street, kind of right at the corner of the street we used to live at, and she's just crying. I'm just kinda, you know, holding her like okay, it's going to be, it's okay, everybody's fine. You, you're fine. And then I think as she, we got our wits, she kinda got her wits about her, I said, "Okay, let's go on back to your house, and let's go ahead and call the cops."

[00:22:24] Bob: And even at that point, Sheratan still isn't quite sure what to think.

[00:22:29] Bob: So when you hang up the phone, it sounds like you were still caught in between, you weren't sure what to believe, right?

[00:22:36] Sheratan Johnson: I wasn't sure what to believe. And I tell Brian, my ex-husband, I said, "I thought you were in the house! I thought you were in there! I thought they had you!" And he says, "No, no." He says, "(beep) is okay," which was our youngest daughter.

[00:22:56] Bob: So how did he convince you that that was true?

[00:22:59] Sheratan Johnson: Because I was not convinced, you're absolutely right. I was not convinced at all. He tells me that he drove there, and she was in her class. And I was like, "No, she's, she's on the phone." I'm still trying to tell him that no, she's, "I heard her, she's on the phone. She's at this strange place."

[00:23:26] Bob: So Brian offers to pick up their younger daughter from gymnastics and bring her home. Mom needs to see her daughter in the flesh.

[00:23:33] Sheratan Johnson: And he told me to go home. "I'm going to go pick her up right away." And I said, "Okay," because I said, "She's, she's got to come home. You've got to bring her home right now." And so I went home, and he brought her home. It was about maybe 30 minutes later, but I was still very concerned at the time.

[00:23:56] Bob: Of course. And you had to see her, I'm sure.

[00:23:58] Sheratan Johnson: I did. I did. I, I needed to know that she was okay.

[00:24:03] Bob: She was okay. There was no kidnapping. Instead, Sheratan was the victim of what the FBI calls a virtual kidnapping. Criminals, often from jails in Mexico, call parents and claim they've taken their child or family member hostage and demand money. The FBI says incidents of virtual kidnapping are soaring, and the agency has issued several warnings about it. When Sheratan learned what had really happened, she decided it was really important to let other parents know about this kind of crime, so she reached out to local reporter, Lloyd Brumfield, who at the time worked for the Dallas Morning News. Even a few weeks after the incident, she was still badly shaken.

[00:24:44] Bob: I mean was she visibly upset about it talking to you?

[00:24:45] Lloyd Brumfield: Yes, very much so.

[00:24:49] Bob: Well where did you meet her?

[00:24:50] Lloyd Brumfield: At her home in Lancaster, Texas. She was very thoughtful, very serious. She was angry, and I think by that time most of the fear had subsided, at least her visible fear had subsided a little bit, but in talking to her she was very much single-minded in wanting to talk about it and wanting to describe how terrible it was.

[00:25:16] Bob: She played the recording for Lloyd, and he was stunned by what he heard.

[00:25:22] Bob: We write about crime all the time, but here you're listening to the voice of a criminal. What was that like?

[00:25:25] Lloyd Brumfield: It was pretty shocking. It, it was weird because he was, he was alternately, so--, sometimes polite, but and sometimes very angry. Sometimes profane. He, he uttered some racial slurs when he wanted her to move quicker. He, I mean he very much got to the point right away and, and when he, when he, when Sheratan first explained that she didn't believe what was going on and he had a, an accomplice with him wherever he was, and who played the part of her daughter, and she started screaming, you know, "Mom, Mom, they've got me, they've got me." Or something similar to that. I mean it's, it's, it's pretty harrowing to listen to him and to listen to Sheratan start screaming.

[00:26:13] Bob: The crime stayed with Sheratan for a long time.

[00:26:17] Lloyd Brumfield: The main effects, that it's, it's pretty impossible to track these people down and a lot of times, unfortunately, the, the victims who, who are scammed end up giving away some kind of money. And that's not, I mean that may be the least of their problems when you, you know, I mean money is just money, but then you’ve got all those mental anxieties and emotional breakdowns that you go through and, and Sheratan said that she couldn't, she couldn't sleep for days or weeks after it happened, you know, she kept thinking that, you know, even after it was re--, resolved, that somebody might come after her or her family. Virtual kidnapping is, it's, it's just an insidious crime. I don't understand why anyone would get it in their head that, hey, let's, let's go, you know, we've been watch--, watching these, this person's social media post, let's, she seems to be fairly well off, let's go victimize her and terrify her about her 10-year-old child. I, I just don't understand what would make one human being do that to another one.

[00:27:16] Bob: Both Lloyd and the family talked to police about the incident. They filed a police report, but the criminals were never found. However traumatic the crime was, at least Brian and Sheratan worked together, and that kept a bad situation from getting much worse.

[00:27:32] Brian Johnson: I think it's um, one of the biggest things that I that I, I feel like is important is that no matter what your relationship is with the person who have children with, that you try to maintain a good, decent relationship of some kind for instances like this because if you're always at odds, if you're always thinking, you know, if I'm, I'm bitter at something, I would not have listened to this. And so in an emergency like this, this could have went downhill, like I don't feel like talking to her. Go away, she makes me sick, and all this other stuff. You know, you need to have a, have a communication, like I said with, whoever you have, whether you're married to him or not, or divorced, you need to really just try to keep those lines of communication open, because I think it's really important for, you know, when things go wrong, whether it's a health emergency, whatever emergency come in, you don't know what's going to come.

[00:28:20] Bob: How did Brian think of that idea to tell Sheratan to meet him at a place that the criminals wouldn't know?

[00:28:25] Brian Johnson: Maybe it's me watching movies, or maybe at that point you're just like these Lifetime movies you might see, I don't, I don't know. I, I sit there, I knew that I wanted to go to a spot that did not link us to any family, that, you know, I didn't want to go my mom's house, I didn't want to go, I just wanted to go to a place where you can start driving and you don't have to say I don't know where that is. You know, I didn't want to say a store, 'cause like what store? Where is the store? Where, you know, I didn't, I didn't want a place where we would have a lot of questions. I didn't want her to have to keep trying to text back and forth, where?

[00:28:57] Bob: That quick thinking really helped the family limit their losses.

[00:29:00] Bob: In the end, how much money did the criminal take from you?

[00:28:03] Sheratan Johnson: It was about $140, $150 because I didn't, I didn't go into another account. I was so nervous when I, when I did it, and there was only a certain amount that I could get, but like I said, I started thinking, I started trying to play things in my head. It was really hard at the same time. Because I didn't even see my savings account when I, when I went to the ATM machine. I didn't even see it. So that was the thing, and it was right there, but I didn't see it, because I only saw whatever I had in a small account that I, that I kept, and I just pulled that out and I was like, "This was all I could get." So I was very nervous, but that's what they ended up getting, but either way it goes, it, it could have been any amount and I was still afraid for my daughter's life.

[00:29:58] Bob: And she's still afraid to go to that bank.

[00:30:01] Bob: So I know it's been a few years, but I can tell talking with you this is still pretty, pretty raw in your feelings.

[00:30:08] Sheratan Johnson: Yes, absolutely. Like I said, I don't even go to that particular bank ATM anymore because of that. It's, it's like, it's a, a piece of trauma that, that lives inside. And it's, it's harsh, but it's harsh reality, and it was very scary at the time.

[00:30:30] Bob: What did Sheratan learn from her experience?

[00:30:33] Sheratan Johnson: So I think it's important to really try to at least know where your loved ones are. And that if you have some type of way of keeping in contact with them, please let them know it's so important to do that, and it's not that you're trying to pry or, you know, spy on them, but it's just for safety reasons. And, and for things to be prevented from happening like these. And if you know where they are, you can deal with whatever situation that you can head on instead of not knowing.

[00:31:14] Bob: Brian says he learned to be careful with social media.

[00:31:18] Brian Johnson: So you have predators all over the place. Really be vigilant to what they're trying to do, and even to this day I talk to my kids about maybe, mainly my youngest, but the same kid who's now 16, you know she's, she's a socialite, and I have to really kind of reel her in because like I said, she doesn't always know the dangers, but she's always out there, she's like, "Oh, he's my friend, and this is my friend. She's my friend," and these little friends, and I'm like, no, you, you need to cut that down to not expose so much of yourself. Have small conversations, but never tell them where you live. As a matter of fact, in your profile, you live in, you live in Dallas, you don't live in Cedar Hill, you don't live in DeSoto, you don't live in Lancaster, you don't say the city where you live, you, you kinda keep it general to, to an area. I live in Texas, type thing.

[00:32:03] Bob: Lloyd was surprised by the impact his story had on readers in Dallas. Many wrote in with offers of sympathy or donations and a few wrote in with their own scam tales.

[00:32:13] Lloyd Brumfield: This happens more often than you think it might. And it's often a very effective way to scam some people out of money. And based on what I heard Sheratan go through, believe me, you don't want to go through this at all, or you don't want to have any of your families go through this at all. It was a very mentally taxing experience, I would just say, be very careful of the numbers that pop up on your phone and, and make, just take extra care in how you answer, or if you answer at all.

[00:32:45] Bob: Perhaps most of all, he was left with a feeling that this kind of crime could happen to anyone.

[00:32:51] Bob: Since you've heard the recording, can you understand why Sheratan would have sent this person money?

[00:32:58] Lloyd Brumfield: Absolutely I can understand it. If you are the parent of that child that supposedly has been nabbed, I mean I, I, wouldn't you err on the side of, of caution. Uh, you know, if you, I mean and all she had was a cellphone, and it would have been pretty hard for her to contact police right away.

[00:33:15] Bob: And Lloyd hopes law enforcement agencies will get even more engaged by listening to victims and solving crimes. Like virtual kidnappings.

[00:33:24] Lloyd Brumfield: The Lancaster Police Department does fine work, and so I don't want to cast aspersions or anything, but when I talked to them, they were basically, you know they basically told me, you know, no, this doesn't really happen anymore. I mean I think you know most people don't fall for the, for these types of scams, and there's really nothing we can do about it, which you know with them saying most people don't fall for these types of scams, I'm not so sure that's true. I, I think there, there's something like, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars out there that, that are stolen every year from innocent people because of these crimes.  

[00:33:58] Bob: Well I have a podcast they can listen to.

[00:34:00] Lloyd Brumfield: Correct! (laugh) Very good.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:34:07] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Researcher, Haley Nelson; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; and of course, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.

END OF TRANSCRIPT

When Sheratan Johnson receives a call from an unknown number, she’s startled to hear the man on the other end of the line claim he’s kidnapped her daughter from gymnastics class. Hearing her daughter’s screams, Sheraton follows all the kidnapper’s demands, and also texts her ex-husband, Brian, who goes into battle mode. Armed and ready to take on the kidnapper, he races across the city to get their daughter back, leading to a dramatic confrontation at a foreclosed house.

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