PUBLIC SAFETY: A Washington Township woman was frightened at first when a caller said that her husband had been abducted and would “get a bullet in the head” if she didn’t wire $1,500 – another in a series of “virtual kidnapping” calls that are quickly spreading throughout the U.S.
She actually relaxed a bit when the caller said her daughter also was being held and would suffer the same fate: She knew the woman was away at college.
She then called her husband, who was safe and sound, as well.
It didn’t end there, though: The daughter also got a call.
Like her mother, she was told that her father — an emergency responder well-known in the area — was in an accident. He needed money to cover the medical bills of the other person involved.
Although neither woman was conned, both were concerned over how the caller got their personal information and phone numbers, a friend of the family told CLIFFVIEW PILOT last night.
“These callers are very convincing – and very upsetting with the head games that they’re playing on people,” the friend said. “Those women were pretty shaken up.”
Others, unfortunately, have become victims in what now has become an epidemic of sorts, one that began in Latin American countries and worked its way north as the locals there became more hip to it.
In Bergen, the virtual kidnapping scam nearly cost a 49-year-old Wyckoff man who wired $900 eight days ago after being told that his brother was being held. He cancelled the transfer in time after contacting police.
“I was just kidding,” the person on the other end of the phone said when a Wyckoff police officer picked up the next call.
Police in Westwood and Saddle Brook have reported recent attempts, as the crime spreads wider and faster, thanks in large part to the bounty of personal data shared on social networks.
Scammers rely on playing the con quickly, before the victim can gather his or her wits.
“They are preying on your emotions and fears that someone is in trouble,” Wyckoff Police Chief Benjamin Fox said. “That tends to allow them to coerce people into taking actions without fully thinking things through.”
More sophisticated operators know that the loved one isn’t with the target — maybe he or she is at work or school — when the call is made. Although there are various scenarios, the accident scam appears one of the most popular.
In that one, the caller — speaking in Spanish or with a Spanish accent — claims he was involved in a car accident with the target’s loved one in or around New York City.
Because the victim couldn’t afford to pay for the damage, the caller says, he’s holding that person captive, with weapons, until the family member can go to the bank, withdraw money and head to the nearest Western Union.
The purported kidnapper demands that it be wired to Puerto Rico or somewhere else outside the U.S.
“They’ll usually say that the victim was on the way to work,” Bogota Police Chief John C. Burke said. “Most of them actually do work, so the family members aren’t about to contact them immediately to confirm or deny what happened.”
In some places, such as Mexico, the victim is directed to go to another location for his or her own safety and remain on the line to await further instructions.
Saddle Brook Police Chief Robert Kugler said a caller told a local warehouse worker that he was holding his wife hostage because she’d backed into his car. If the man didn’t wire $1,500 to to a Walmart in Florida, he said, he would shoot her.
The savvy target texted his wife, who responded, then called police.
Not everyone is as sharp, however.
“You’d think people wouldn’t believe this kind of call, but these guys are convincing,” a local law enforcement officer told CLIFFVIEW PILOT. “One guy’s daughter went as far as trying to get money from friends at college to help her dad.”
Amounts vary across North American, but locally they tend to fall around $1,500.
“So far we’ve had at least six asking for that range, through Western Union,” Washington Township Police Lt. John Calamari said.
In one case last year, virtual kidnappers convinced a 70-year-old woman in Argentina to throw a bag full of money and jewelry from her balcony.
The amounts sometimes decrease at the first signs of resistance, Westwood Police Chief Frank Regino said.
“Instructions usually require the ransom payment be made immediately and typically by wire transfer or by prepaid credit card such as Green Dot,” Regino said.
Callers will often try to make the target believe that he or she is being watched — although the calls actually are coming from out of the country.
Police urge residents to hang up when receiving such calls and immediately call them.
They also ask that you share this information with loved ones and friends so that they don’t become victims.