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FBI warns of virtual kidnapping scams, spoofing calls

A woman who lives in the Savannah area shares a detailed account of her experience to help others
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*(WTOC)
Updated: Mar. 16, 2021 at 7:38 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - The FBI warns of more sinister calls making the rounds.

The phone calls are known as virtual kidnapping scams and have been reported across the nation, including Chatham County. Unlike robocalls, the spoof calls often cannot be blocked because the technology used.

A woman in the Savannah area received one of those frightening calls. For her, she said the call appeared to be from her mother. The woman, who asked that her real name be used, agreed to share her story with WTOC so that others can learn from her experience and know what to say and do in the moment.

For Sarah, the phone call came early one Sunday morning.

“It came up as mom’s cell, her picture and her ring tone. Usually, she doesn’t call me early in the mornings so I thought something must be wrong. I need to answer this,” she said.

“When I picked it up I heard - some crying, a muffling sound coming from a woman’s voice almost like there was a hand over her mouth and she couldn’t talk.”

“I kept asking her, Mom, what’s wrong. What’s wrong? Tell me what’s wrong. Did something happen?”

She then heard a man’s voice come on the line. He said:

“I have your mother. I have a gun to her head. And I will blow her head off if you don’t send me money right now. Once I started crying hard. He said, ‘You need to calm down because if you call police, if you call anyone I will shoot her in the head.’

Sarah asked what the man wanted. She offered to give him her bank account number. He said no, and asked for her to send him $1,500 through a PayPal transaction. She didn’t have the App or an account set up on her phone, so he walked her through how to download it - threatening to kill her mother every step of the way.

The call dropped moments after she sent the money.

“I didn’t know if he did shoot her in the head. I called her cell phone back and it went straight to voicemail,” she said. “And then I called her fiancé who lives with her and he answered the phone and said ...... hello. I said, ‘Is mom okay?’ He said, ‘yeah, she’s in bed. And I was like what is going on?”

She was able to stop the transaction before it went through, and did report the phone call to Chatham County Police. Investigators have not charged anyone, but they do believe the call was made using technology known as spoofing.

It works like this: The person spoofing has the cell phone numbers of two people who know each other. In this case, the scammer used technology to make it appear as if mom’s cell was calling Sarah.

Calls like it are happening all over the country, but there the FBI does not have data to show how often and where the calls are occurring.

“We haven’t tracked them because most times they are just reported to local authorities,” said Kevin Rowson, public affairs specialist with the FBI. The FBI first became aware of virtual kidnapping scams in 2017.

“So a lot of times these virtual kidnappings are originating inside prisons in Mexico and they are using cell phones, throw away cell phones so it’s very hard to track them,” he said. “The odds are if you fall victim and this is sad to say. The odds are you aren’t going to get your money back. And it’s going to be very difficult for us to track them or pin them down.”

The best form of defense is to be “really conscious and aware that the call you’re getting might be something that is not real,” Rowson said.

It’s something that Sarah understands in a personal way.

“Looking back, you learn a lot about yourself and how you react to something like that, and when you are in that much fear. I probably should have questioned him more like what’s my mom’s name or can I hear her voice? But in that moment all you want to do is save her life.”

Fear is a motivator. So what can you do?

Here are some suggestions from the FBI:

  • The key is to slow down the process.
  • Ask to speak to your loved one.
  • Ask a personal question - such as a birth date or color of the person’s hair or eye color.
  • If the person refuses those requests, have someone else try to call or text your loved one who you’re being told is being held hostage.
  • Report it to local police and file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission or call 888-225-5322.

To combat spoofing calls, there is some hope on the horizon.

By June 30th of this year, large wireless carriers are required to put more protections in place to prevent the calls. The deadline is a requirement under the 2019 TRACED Act, but it’s uncertain how effective the protocol will be against spoofing calls.

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