Police warn of kidnapping extortion scam targeting Southland residents

Police in Southern California are warning the public about a series of telephone kidnapping scams that are believed to be originating in Mexico.

In a typical scenario, people receive a phone call from a person who says a family member is being held hostage, and the caller vows to hurt or kill the hostage unless money is wired to him, said Officer Jack Richter, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department. Later, family members learn that their loved one was never kidnapped.

"These individuals are really working the city," said Richter, adding that the scammers appear to be targeting residents in the San Fernando Valley.

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Callers typically order people to withdraw money and leave it at a designated drop-off point or ask for money through a wire transfer, Richter said.

The Beverly Hills Police Department said that in a few cases, the caller hires a private driver to chauffeur a person to the bank and withdraw money for the ransom.

Callers also try to dissuade people from contacting their allegedly "kidnapped" relative, police said.

Police identified several warning signs to a possible kidnapping scam. Calls frequently come from a non-local area code or from out of the U.S., not from the phone of the kidnapped victim. And the extortionists "go to great lengths" to keep people on the phone line, police said.

Beverly Hills police said to ask to speak to the kidnap victim and to "listen carefully" to verify whether it is a family member. 

So far, no one has been arrested, Richter said.

"It's really difficult to find an individual at the end of that wire transfer," he added. "Typically it is sent to Mexico. You'll find an agent there shrugging his shoulders."

Authorities advised residents not to send money or provide financial information to an unfamiliar person, especially unsolicited phone calls or emails.

Above all, officials warned, sending money to extortionists without contacting police risks furthering the scam.

To report possible phone scams or learn more, police directed callers to the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division at (213) 486-6840. 

For breaking news in California, follow @MattHjourno

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