Column: An express train to hell: When the caller says your child has been kidnapped
His name is Vince. He’s 63, lives in the Central Coast region and works as an environmental consultant. He asked that I not use his last name because the whole thing is still pretty raw and, frankly, he’s embarrassed.
Vince recently spent 20 terrible hours being run all over the Southland by people who claimed they were holding his teenage daughter hostage.
He’s out thousands of dollars, the latest victim of a scam the FBI says preys on a parent’s worst fears.
“There have been hundreds of these calls in Southern California so far this year,” said Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Los Angeles office. “It’s a growing scheme, with victims in predominantly wealthy communities like Beverly Hills.”
She said most people who receive these calls, which originate mainly in Mexico, simply hang up.
Every so often, though, someone gets taken in. For these people, it’s an express train to hell.
In Vince’s case, he was that one-in-a-million victim — someone with exactly the right circumstances to turn a scammer’s shot in the dark into a nightmare ordeal.
“My daughter was on a camping trip at the time,” Vince told me, his voice still shaky as he recounted an experience that left him traumatized and in therapy.
“She wasn’t far from the Mexican border,” he said. “There was no way to reach her.”
The call arrived on his cellphone as he was driving home.
“There was screaming, a young woman screaming,” Vince recalled. “She said, ‘Help me, Dad!’”
He called out his daughter’s name. In hindsight, this was a mistake, because the man who came on the line immediately started using it in asking Vince if he wanted to see her again, giving Vince, in his panicked state, the impression that his daughter really was being held.
The man said he was with the Mexican mafia. “He said my daughter wasn’t the intended target, but that she’d tried to intervene and they took her instead,” Vince said. “He said that if I didn’t pay some money, they’d take her to Sinaloa and sell her.”
Sinaloa is in northwestern Mexico. It serves as base of operations for the Sinaloa drug cartel, a particularly nasty crime syndicate once run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Vince said the caller alternated from “very hostile” to “it’s all going to be all right.” The man said Vince’s phone and data accounts had been hacked, so he better not try to contact the authorities.
A key aspect of the racket is to never free up the victim’s phone so that he or she can check on their child’s whereabouts or contact authorities. Vince was instructed to place his phone in speaker mode and to never turn it off.
If he did, his daughter would suffer.
“I was on the phone with these people nonstop,” Vince said. “I was close to losing it.”
He was told to go to the bank and withdraw thousands of dollars (he declined to specify the exact amount, mortified by what others might think). Next he was instructed to wire the money to an address in Mexico.
It didn’t go smoothly. Vince said he went to a Rite-Aid and a CVS but had difficulty wiring more than $1,400, the caller listening in the entire time via the phone in Vince’s pocket.
Eventually, the caller said Vince would have to deliver the cash in person.
“They got me on the road and made me shout out every exit I passed,” Vince said. “For literally three hours I’m in rush-hour traffic, all the while thinking my daughter was in danger. I was a wreck.”
He was guided to San Pedro, where the caller had him drive around for about 15 minutes. “They said they were watching me,” Vince said.
He was instructed to park in a residential area and leave the money in an envelope beneath a tall tree. As he was driving away, Vince said, he saw a “youngish” man, “fairly nicely dressed,” run up to the tree and grab the envelope.
Vince was directed to a parking lot behind the Vagabond Inn hotel on South Gaffey Street, where he assumed he’d finally be reunited with his daughter. The caller, however, wasn’t finished.
“He said it wasn’t enough money,” Vince said. “He wanted more. It was like nine o’clock at night and I said there weren’t any banks open. So I was told to take a room in the hotel.”
I’m betting more than a few readers are saying at this point that it’s obviously a scam. But put yourself in Vince’s position. His daughter can’t be reached. He’s dealing with rough-sounding people. He’s been run ragged for hours.
Would you really say, “Screw this, I’m going to the cops”? Even if it meant your child might face an unimaginable fate?
Vince went to his bank the next morning and withdrew thousands more dollars. Once again he was directed to drive all over the place, only now the caller — who had been on the phone the entire time — said Vince was being followed and his daughter was nearby.
He was told to stop behind a 7-Eleven and leave the cash in an envelope beneath a dumpster. Vince said he did and then, as he pulled away, saw a black truck arrive and someone jump out quickly to snatch the envelope. Vince was told to drive to a location about 10 miles away.
“And then the phone went dead,” he said. “They’d hung up.”
Needless to say, his daughter wasn’t waiting for him at that final destination. The phone finally free, no one eavesdropping on his every move, Vince got in touch with his wife.
He learned that his daughter had checked in. She’d had a great camping trip.
Vince pulled off the road and started to cry.
“People will say, ‘Don’t beat yourself up,’” he told me. “But you do. You can’t believe it happened.”
Federal investigators and the Los Angeles police held a news conference last year to warn that kidnap-scam calls were on the rise in California and several other states. Frequently, the calls would be made by prison inmates in Mexico and elsewhere.
“People with lots of time on their hands,” explained the FBI’s Eimiller. “They’ll make these calls all day long until they finally hook someone.”
She advised recipients to stay calm and, if possible, to immediately check on the well-being of their loved one.
If, like Vince, you’re unable to do that, tell the caller you want to speak with your child. If they won’t comply, tell the caller to ask a question only your son or daughter could answer — the name of a pet, say.
“Once you find out that the perpetrator can’t answer, it’s fair to conclude this is a scam,” Eimiller said.
She encouraged anyone who receives such a call to report it to the FBI or police, although the chances are slim to none that the scammers would ever be brought to justice.
I spoke with Vince and his wife, and they say they’re doing better. Vince said it will take time for him to recover.
He also told me that within days of what happened to him, a family friend received an alarming call.
“It was a young girl on the line,” Vince said. “She was screaming that she had a knife held to her throat.”
His friend hung up. She doesn’t have a daughter.