2 'virtual kidnap' scams within 24 hours have Calif. police on alert

The incidents were similar: Phone calls were made to potential victims, with the caller demanding a large sum of money or threatening to harm a loved one

Erika I. Ritchie
The Orange County Register

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. — Two “virtual kidnap” cases within 24 hours in this seaside community have led police to alert all local schools.

The incidents were similar: Phone calls were made to potential victims, with the caller demanding a large sum of money or threatening to harm a loved one.

“We definitely believe these incidents are connected,” said Sgt. Jim Cota, who last summer spearheaded assistance for a Laguna Niguel mother who sought help after receiving a threatening call.

“They are happening in surrounding cities and all appear to be connected to the same group,” Cota said. “All of them want money transferred to an account in Mexico and they are directing victims outside of the city to withdraw money. It’s like they’ve been there before. They’re sending them all to Costa Mesa.”

On March 7, a Laguna Beach resident reported to police that he had been a victim of the kidnapping scam, after he already had paid $5,000.

“At 2:30 pm, the victim received a cellphone call from a suspect who stated he had kidnapped the victim’s daughter and was holding her and wanted $5,000 or he would kill her,” Cota said. “The suspect ordered the victim to stay on the phone with him throughout this incident. The victim became fearful for his daughter and after briefly hearing a female scream into the phone stating she had been kidnapped, the victim went to his bank and withdrew $5,000.

“The victim then was directed to go to various wire transfer locations outside the city where he transferred the money to an account in Mexico,” Cota said. “At about 6:30 pm, as the victim was completing the last transaction, he received a call from his daughter who was fine in Laguna Beach.”

His daughter told him she had not been kidnapped. The man had just completed the transaction and could not stop the transfer of the funds, Cota said.

A day later, at 11:42 a.m., Laguna Beach police received another call. In this case, the victim was told that her daughter — who attends college in Chicago — had been captured. The parents were again directed to withdraw money and wire it to a Mexican account from the same location in Costa Mesa.

“Once the mother pulled out the money, she called the police department,” Cota said. “Police officers stopped her on her way out of town and were able to stop the transfer of money.”

The woman contacted her daughter in Chicago and confirmed she was safe.

The two incidents are among a spike in these scams reported to police agencies in coastal and South Orange County. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department reported several incidents in San Clemente in recent weeks.

Last summer, coastal areas were targeted between April and June, according to information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “We know that perpetrators target affluent areas,” said FBI spokeswoman Laura Einmiller.

Both of the Laguna Beach cases were referred to the FBI on Wednesday, March 13, Cota said.

The FBI – which investigates the scams in tandem with local law enforcement agencies – says the schemes affect hundreds of people each year. Agents began opening cases within the past five years and prosecuted their first case in 2015.

The scams are prosecuted as violent acts.

Following the incidents last week, the Laguna Beach Police Department contacted the Laguna Beach Unified School District as well as local private schools to warn parents.

“Two incidents in 24 hours is unacceptable,” Cota said. “We can’t afford to have people lose their hard-earned money.”

What to do if you get one of these calls

According to the FBI:

  • Hang up on the caller
  • If you don’t hang up, stall for time and ask for proof that the person reportedly kidnapped is really your relative
  • Locate the family member immediately
  • Report the incident to local law enforcement

If you have been a victim of this crime, call the FBI at 310-477-6565


©2019 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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