Authorities are investigating two “virtual kidnapping” cases which occurred within 24 hours of each other in California.
The two incidents took place in Laguna Beach, California, on March 7 and March 8, Sgt. Jim Cota of the Laguna Beach Police Department told ABC News.
Cota said the incidents were similar: the victims would receive a phone call that said their child was kidnapped with a male or female voice audible in the background sounding distressed. The victims would be instructed to take out money and then go to a pre-determined location in Costa Mesa, California, to wire the money to Mexico.
Cota said that in the March 7 case, a man who was told his daughter was kidnapped wired $5,000 to the account just before his daughter contacted him and said she was safe.
The next morning, according to Cota, a woman who was told her daughter was kidnapped took the requested money from her bank account and was on her way to wire it when family members and a friend of the woman contacted police, who were able to stop her before she could wire the money. Cota said police were able to reach the woman’s daughter, who attends school in Chicago, and confirm she was safe.
Cota said police were able to stop two virtual kidnapping incidents in 2018 that had a similar setup to the two 2019 cases. He also said the virtual kidnapping cases would be turned over to the FBI.
Kathie Gross, a resident of Laguna Niguel who was a “virtual kidnapping” victim in March 2018, told ABC News that she received a call from an unlisted number one morning. Gross said when she picked up, she heard a voice that sounded like her daughter’s voice screaming for help and saying she was put in a van. Gross said she used her daughter’s name in the call, which she said was a mistake.
Gross said a male voice then asked if she was Kathie Gross and said that the suspects had “him,” warning Gross not to call anyone. Gross said once the voice referred to her daughter as “him,” she hung up the phone and called her daughter’s school to confirm where she was. Gross said she was on hold while the school attempted to locate her daughter, who was not in the class she was supposed to be in at that time, and that she kept receiving calls with no caller ID. Gross said she arrived at the school to find her daughter was safe.
The FBI says that a virtual kidnapping scheme “depends on speed and fear” to work, with the perpetrators trying to get the money they want “before the victims unravel the scam or authorities become involved.”
The FBI says that in most cases where someone is contacted demanding a ransom in an alleged kidnap, the best action to take is to hang up the phone. They also say not to use the alleged victim’s name on the call and recommend trying to ask the victim questions only the victim would know the answers to and listen carefully to their voice. The FBI also recommends contacting the victim on their phone and trying to “slow the situation down” by asking to speak with the victim or trying to buy time.