The Laguna Beach Police Department reported this week that two “virtual kidnapping” scams occurred in Laguna on March 7 and 8. Virtual kidnapping is an extortion scheme that tricks victims into paying a ransom to free a loved one they believe is being threatened with violence or death.
On Thursday, March 7, a Laguna Beach resident who lives in the 400 block of Park Avenue told LBPD that he was a victim of a fraud involving the fake kidnapping of his daughter.
“At 2:30 p.m., the victim received a cell phone 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,” said Sgt. Jim Cota. “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 the victim received a call around 6:30 p.m. as he was completing the last transaction from his daughter, who was fine and in Laguna Beach.
“His daughter had not been kidnapped and had no knowledge of what was occurring,” Cota said. “The father had just completed the last transaction and could not stop the transfer of the funds.”
The following day, March 8, at 11:42 a.m., LBPD received another virtual kidnapping call similar to the March 7 incident.
“The incident did involve a Laguna Beach resident withdrawing money; however, we (LBPD) were able to intervene prior to the money being weird to an account in Mexico,” Cota said. “The resident finally contacted her daughter, who is a college student in Chicago, and found out she was safe.”
Authorities believe the suspect was able to learn personal information about the victims through unsecured social media sites (i.e. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.). Officials recommended reviewing the social media settings to make sure they are secured.
Cota noted that following the scams, School Resource Officer Cpl. Cornelius Ashton created an informative piece on virtual kidnapping that was sent out to all Laguna Beach schools, including private schools, for dissemination to parents. (See sidebar)
“Two virtual kidnapping incidents within 24 hours is unacceptable,” Cota said. “Luckily, we were able to stop the second one.”
What to Know about Virtual Kidnapping
The success of a virtual kidnapping scheme depends on speed and fear. Criminals know they have a limited amount of time before the victim catches on to the scam or law enforcement gets involved.
If you suspect a real kidnapping is taking place or you believe a ransom demand is a scam, contact the Laguna Beach Police Department at 949-497-0701.
- Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone, insisting you remain on the line
- Calls do not come from the supposed victim’s phone
- Callers try to prevent you from contacting the “kidnapped” victim
- Callers include demands for ransom money to be paid via wire transfers to Mexico; Ransom amount demands may drop quickly
If you receive a phone call from someone demanding a ransom for your family member, the following should be considered:
- In most cases, the best course of action is to hang up the phone
- If you don’t want to risk ending the call, drive to the nearest police station
- Try to remain calm and slow the situation down
- Do not share any information about your family during the call and don’t use the alleged victim’s name
- If you hear the victim’s voice or screaming in the background, try to ascertain if it really is your child
- Attempt to contact the ‘kidnapped’ victim via phone, text, messaging app or social media to see where they are and if they are safe
- Ask to speak to the victim
- Ask questions that only the victim would know
- Ask the caller to call back using the victim’s phone
- Try to buy time by repeating the caller’s demands and telling the caller you need to write things down or need time to complete the transaction
- Don’t challenge or argue with the caller
- Write down the phone number the caller is calling from
For more information, contact School Resource Officer Cpl. Cornelius Ashton at 949-497-0773.