The FBI and NYPD are alerting the public to a frightening new phone scam targeting New York City residents.
Con artists dial seemingly random phone numbers, claim to have kidnapped a family member, and demand money be wired immediately in exchange for the relative’s safety. The scams often involve car accidents, drug debts, gang assaults, or people being smuggled across the border, according to officials.
“This is a scheme that takes advantage of some of the most vulnerable people in New York City,” said FBI assistant director George Venizelos in a statement. “We need the public to be aware of this scam and call us if they have been a victim.”
The callers often use co-conspirators to create a sense of urgency. In one example, the caller tells the victim that her husband or son had gotten into a car accident with a member of a gang. The caller, claiming to be a friend or relative of the gang member, will explain to the victim that their family member is seriously injured and needs to go to the hospital, but that their friend will not allow them to go until he gets paid for the damages done to his vehicle.
In another case, the caller tries to convince the victim that his daughter was kidnapped by having a young female scream for help in the background.
Callers provide their victims with specific instructions to ensure safe return of the allegedly kidnapped relative – usually a ransom payment via Western Union. The victims are ordered to stay on the phone until the money is wired, usually between $600 to $1,900, to a third party in Puerto Rico. Once the payment is made, the “kidnappers” often claim the money was not received and tell their victims to wire more money.
The perpetrators appear to be Hispanic men and often speak with a Spanish accent. Hundreds of people have already been targeted by this scam, reports NBC New York.
“The New York City Police Department, in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, continually seeks preventive measures to ensure the public is both safe and well informed,” said NYPD Police Commissioner William J. Bratton in a statement. “We encourage the community to immediately contact the police if they encounter any calls that require a ransom for kidnapping.”
To avoid becoming a victim of this extortion scheme, look out for these red flags:
- Incoming calls come from an outside area code, sometimes from Puerto Rico with area codes 787, 939, and 856
- Calls do not come from the kidnapped victim’s phone
- Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
- Callers prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim
- Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer service
If you receive a phone call from someone who demands payment of a ransom for a kidnapped victim, here’s what you can do:
- Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to the victim directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
- If they don’t let you speak to the victim, ask them to describe the victim or describe the vehicle they drive, if applicable.
- Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim if they speak.
- Attempt to call, text, or contact the victim via social media. Request that the victim call back from his or her cell phone.
- While staying on the line with alleged kidnappers, try to call the alleged kidnap victim from another phone.
- To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to get things moving.
- Don’t directly challenge or argue with the caller. Keep your voice low and steady.
- Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone.
Anyone with information about the virtual kidnappings to call the FBI at 212-384-1000 or the NYPD at 800-577-TIPS. If you believe you are the victim of a real kidnapping, please call 911 or your local FBI office. Tipsters may remain anonymous.