ST. GEORGE – Fear initially caused by a phone call claiming one of his daughters had been kidnapped turned to anger for Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox as he realized he was being scammed.
The St. George Police Department issued a warning on its Facebook page about the scam earlier this week after after Cox reported the incident. Specially, the scam is referred to as “virtual kidnapping” and involves the scammer claiming a loved one has been kidnapped while also demanding money.
The FBI also issued a warning about virtual kidnapping in October.
“Although virtual kidnapping takes on many forms, it is always an extortion scheme — one that tricks victims into paying a ransom to free a loved one they believe is being threatened with violence or death,” the FBI stated in the October news release. “Unlike traditional abductions, virtual kidnappers have not actually kidnapped anyone. Instead, through deceptions and threats, they coerce victims to pay a quick ransom before the scheme falls apart.”
In Cox’s case, the call came in while he was driving back to the Washington County Administration Building after having lunch at home.
“I was met by a sobbing female that could easily have been one of my daughters,” Cox said. “She was saying, ‘Dad, Dad, you’ve got to help me. Something terrible has happened. You’ve got to help me.’”
Adrenaline kicked in at that point, Cox said, as he began to wonder what could have happened. Had a grandchild or his son-in-law been in an accident and possibly killed?
“A male voice (then) came on the phone, very calm, very collected, and said, ‘Sir, Sir, your daughter’s fine,” he said.
Cox said that at first he thought the man was a police officer, but that opinion changed with the next words the man uttered: “… but she’s been kidnapped.”
Read more: Utah parents warn of ‘virtual kidnapping’
Unsure he had heard that right at first, Cox hung up on the man and called his daughters directly. After a few tense moments, he was able to contact them and learned both were safe.
Just after contacting his daughters, the scammer called back and received an angry reception.
“I was really, really mad,” Cox said. “We never got to the point of the conversation where he was going to tell me where to take the money. I just gave him a piece of my mind.”
Following the call, Cox went to the police and reported the incident. As he started to tell his story, Cox said, the officers there finished it for him. He wasn’t the only one in the area who had been a target of the scammers.
Law enforcement agencies have been aware of the virtual kidnapping scam for around 20 years, according to the FBI. However, it had originally been limited to Mexico and the Southwest border states. It has seen expanded to the point it can reach anyone anywhere.
If you receive a call, St. George Police and the FBI recommend doing what Cox did – contact the person who has supposedly been kidnapped.
The scammers will otherwise do their best to keep their target on the phone so they can’t contact their loved ones as Cox did, or contact the police.
“Don’t let these people pull your chain,” Cox said. “Verify family is OK and contact police. Don’t send any money.”
The following is from the FBI’s website on how not to become a victim of a virtual kidnapping scam.
The success of any type of virtual kidnapping scheme depends on speed and fear. Criminals know they only have a short time to exact a ransom before the victims unravel the scam or authorities become involved. To avoid becoming a victim, look for these possible indicators:
- 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.
- Calls include demands for ransom money to be paid via wire transfer to Mexico; ransom amount demands may drop quickly.
If you receive a phone call from someone demanding a ransom for an alleged kidnap victim, the following should be considered:
- In most cases, the best course of action is to hang up the phone.
- If you do engage the caller, don’t call out your loved one’s name.
- Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to your family member directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
- Ask questions only the alleged kidnap victim would know, such as the name of a pet. Avoid sharing information about yourself or your family.
- Listen carefully to the voice of the alleged victim if they speak.
- Attempt to contact the alleged victim via phone, text or social media, and request that they call back from their cell 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 agree to pay a ransom, by wire or in person. Delivering money in person can be dangerous.
If you suspect a real kidnapping is taking place or you believe a ransom demand is a scheme, contact your nearest FBI office or local law enforcement immediately. Tips to the FBI can also be submitted online at tips.fbi.gov. All tipsters may remain anonymous.
Attempts to reach St. George Police for additional comment were not returned by the time of publication.
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