When he answered his cellphone just before 9 a.m. on Dec. 4, the woman calling sounded hysterical: “Daddy, I’m in trouble,” she said, sobbing to Cazadero resident Kerch Thomas. Seconds later, an unknown man saying he was with a Guatemalan crime organization took over the call and told Thomas his daughter had been kidnapped after witnessing a murder and now would be killed unless he paid $10,000.
Then the woman screamed in the background during the call. A frantic Thomas, who kept his cellphone to his ear following the man’s orders not to hang up, took $10,000 out of his account at West America Bank in Guerneville.
Thomas was driving to downtown Santa Rosa with the cash to await further instructions from the man when he crossed paths with a Sonoma County sheriff’s sergeant, who helped him determine his 40-year-old daughter living in Oregon was safe.
“I thought it was my daughter,” Thomas said, recounting last week’s harrowing phone call that turned out to be a scam spreading around the nation that the FBI calls virtual kidnapping. “There was nothing you could do but do what they wanted.”
Fortunately for Thomas, his daughter was unharmed, and quick reaction from bank employees and the sergeant helped thwart the scheme before he handed over $10,000.
Telephone scams are common and often lucrative for the perpetrators, authorities said. There are numerous ploys; most of them involve trying to trick people in less frightening ways, such as targeting grandmothers who think a grandson needs bail money to get out of jail.
However, the terrifying phone threat of kidnapping and killing a family member unless a large ransom payment is made takes it to an extreme level.
“This is the first time we’ve heard that one,” Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum said of Thomas’ frightening call. “There was a woman screaming in the background. You think it could be your kid. It’s definitely disturbing.”
The FBI said this virtual kidnapping has been around for at least two decades but for much of that period the calls primarily were made to Spanish speakers in Southwest states. And many of the calls were traced to Mexican prisons. But in 2015, such extortion calls widened to include English speakers in several states across the country. The extortionists — many still operating from Mexico — now typically cold call innocent people starting with a specific area code and dial numbers in various sequences trolling for victims, according to an FBI public warning on the agency’s website about the spread of virtual kidnapping cases.
“Unlike traditional abductions, virtual kidnappers have not actually kidnapped anyone,” according to the FBI. “Instead, through deceptions and threats, they coerce victims to pay a quick ransom before the scheme falls apart.”
Numerous news reports in recent years reveal terrifying extortion calls mirroring Thomas’ case here. In August, an Encinitas woman in Southern California paid $1,400 in prepaid debit cards after getting a threatening call that her mother would be killed unless she made the payment. In September, a Jacksonville, Florida mother and daughter were called separately and each told the other had been kidnapped and would be killed unless they paid.
The callers’ key tactic is to keep their unsuspecting victims on the phone, limiting their ability to call for help or check on their loved one. The devious scheme also can involve a mobile phone app that allows the deceptive caller to show a family member’s number on caller identification, adding to the legitimacy of the call, according to the FBI.