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‘Virtual kidnapping’ scammers seek ransom from affluent Southern California families

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Laguna Beach police are warning the public about a virtual kidnapping scam.
(Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times/File photo)

Two Laguna Beach families were the recent targets of a “virtual kidnapping” scam in which they were told one of their children had been abducted and would be killed unless they paid a ransom, police said.

As implausible as the scenario may seem on its face, Laguna Beach police said in one of the two instances it worked with a parent sending the culprit thousands of dollars. But police warned that such scams were not new and that they had been successful before.

“This type of activity is called ‘virtual kidnapping’ and we believe the suspect was able to learn personal information of the victim through unsecured social media sites (i.e. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.),” Laguna Beach police said in a prepared statement.

On March 7 and then again on March 8, police said, a scammer called two separate families in Laguna Beach and used the same deception.

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The suspect said he had kidnapped the victims’ daughter — a girl could be heard screaming in the background — and that if the parent did not drive to a specific location in Costa Mesa and wire $5,000 to an account in Mexico, their child would die, police said.

The scam is based on speed and fear, police said. The caller tries to keep the person on the phone and have the money wired as quickly as possible before the individual confirms through other means that the child is fine.

It’s a scam that’s been going on for years and continues to claim victims.

In one of the cases earlier this month, the scammer was successful, police said. A father sent $5,000 to the culprit before he learned his daughter was OK. In the other attempt, police were able to confirm a woman’s daughter was safe in Chicago before she sent the money.

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Scammers typically target families living in affluent communities who may have quick access to large sums of cash, experts say. Virtual kidnappers also hit families in Laguna Beach in May and April of 2018, officials said.

If someone ever does call you claiming to have kidnapped your child, here are a few clues that may indicate it’s a scam, police said:

  • The caller goes to great lengths to keep you on the phone and insists you remain on the line.
  • The call doesn’t come from the victim’s phone.
  • The caller tries to prevent you from reaching your child.
  • The caller demands the money be sent to Mexico via wire transfer; the amount of the ransom drops rapidly to encourage payment.

If you do receive a call for an alleged kidnapping victim, police suggest you do the following:

  • In most cases, hanging up immediately is the best course of action.
  • If you do engage, do not call out your loved one’s name.
  • Try to slow the situation and ask to speak with the family member directly.
  • Ask questions only your loved one would know, such as the name of a pet.
  • Listen carefully to the voice of the alleged victim if they speak.
  • Attempt to contact your loved one and ask that you be contacted back through their phone.
  • Buy time by saying you’re writing down demands.
  • Don’t agree to pay any ransom by wire or in person.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.


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