Law enforcement is warning the public to beware of a type of telephone scam known as "virtual kidnapping" that targeted a Laguna Beach mother.
The woman received a call April 20 from a man saying he had kidnapped her young son, police said. The man demanded a ransom and threatened to kill the child, police said.
The woman told police she heard what she thought was a child screaming in the background.
But the call was revealed to be a hoax after officers confirmed her son was safe.
Authorities said the incident is part of a string of virtual kidnapping schemes that aim to scare people into handing over money.
Jordan Villwock, Laguna Beach's emergency operations coordinator, said authorities suspect the man gathered personal information about the woman through unsecured social media.
"The success of any type of virtual kidnapping scheme depends on speed and fear," Villwock said. "Criminals know they only have a short time to exact a ransom before the victims unravel the scam or authorities become involved."
The FBI has been tracking virtual kidnapping calls to the United States from Mexico since 2013. Most of the schemes originate in Mexican prisons, according to the agency.
The prisoners — who typically bribe guards to acquire cellphones — often select affluent areas to target. They determine the correct area code and then start dialing numbers in sequence to troll for victims, according to the FBI.
Kathie Gross, a Laguna Niguel resident, recently answered a call from an unknown number to hear what she was convinced was her 12-year-old daughter Jordan's voice.
"Mom, I need help," the voice said. "These men have taken me."
Gross screamed her daughter's name. Villwock said scammers often wait for victims to say their loved one's name and use it as further evidence that they have the person captive, so he advised people who receive such a call not to provide any personal information.
In Gross' case, the caller slipped when he referred to Jordan as a boy, so she hung up. After confirming that her daughter was at school, Gross realized the call was a scam.
"It was truly the most terrifying experience I've ever had," she said.
Law enforcement officials suggest that people who receive a possible virtual kidnapping call:
- Hang up the phone
- Try to reach the alleged kidnapping victim on his or her phone
- Call police
- Do not pay a ransom by any means