Sonoma County father victim of scam demanding cash or his daughter would be killed

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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.

That wasn’t the case last week when Thomas received the call. He didn’t recognize the phone number, which had four numbers too many, possibly indicating an international call.

Now he wishes he hadn’t answered. Or that he’d asked the virtual kidnapper for his daughter’s name. Or that that he’d asked which daughter the caller was talking about to test the veracity of the chilling call.

Thomas, 66, agreed to be interviewed about his experience, hoping to educate people about this phone scam and how to avoid it. He asked to protect the identity of his daughter. Also, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office posted a message on its Facebook profile alerting county residents to be aware of this phone scam and reminded people to check their privacy settings on social media accounts as a way to protect unknown individuals from reading their postings.

Meanwhile, Thomas said the story the man on the phone told him was far-fetched but detailed.

“Right away he said, ‘We have your daughter. We’re going to kill her if you don’t do what we say.’ He told me she had seen something she shouldn’t have seen and they had her in a van,” Thomas said. “My brain was kind of reeling.”

Although the man’s story didn’t make sense, the woman on the phone crying, screaming and saying she was in trouble sounded like his daughter’s voice. And the orders from the man came fast. Thomas was told to go and get into his car quickly — the man did agree to let him get dressed — and honk the horn to prove he was in the vehicle.

Thomas was told to drive to his bank and name the streets on the way, indicating his progress was being tracked. While keeping Thomas talking as he drove, at one point the caller got political. “He goes, ‘What do you think about Trump?’” said Thomas, who stayed neutral, hoping to avoid further conflict.

Thomas lives in a rural area and warned the caller the cellphone call likely would drop. Ironically, he said, it was the first time one of his calls didn’t fail along the long stretches of Cazadero Highway and Highway 116.

In downtown Guerneville, Thomas slowly drove through the sheriff’s substation parking lot, hoping to spot a deputy but seeing no one.

Walking into the downtown West America bank branch, he took risky steps of trying to alert someone to his plight. He spoke loudly into his cellphone, telling the man he’d entered the bank to get the $10,000. “I wanted people in there to hear. They were looking at me kind of funny. They know me in there,” he said of bank employees.

The caller told him to be quiet and not talk but stay on the call, so Thomas began trying sign language with one hand for someone to call 911 while still holding the phone to his ear.

Bank employees could see he was upset as he withdrew the money but they didn’t know why. At one point, he set down the phone and walked steps away to tell a bank teller: “They said they’re going to kill my daughter.”

A bank manager called sheriff’s deputies as Thomas returned to his car and started the drive to Santa Rosa. While driving, he was pondering how to flag down a deputy without alerting the man still on the phone who said his daughter would be killed unless he paid the money.

“I’m busy thinking how I’m going to get out of this mess here,” Thomas said.

Before he got out of Guerneville, Sgt. Ryan Russell, responding to the report from the bank, pulled his vehicle alongside Thomas.

Russell rolled down his window and asked in a whisper “if I’m the guy at the bank,” said Thomas, who nodded in reply.

The sergeant told Thomas to mute his phone, which he did. “They’re going to kill her. They’re going to kill her,” Thomas frantically relayed to Russell.

Then Russell asked Thomas to hang up the phone, a difficult move for the worried father. But he did, realizing he’d already warned the man the call could drop in the rural area. He hoped the man would think that’s what happened. Sgt. Russell then called Thomas’ daughter.

Thomas asked him to put her on speaker so he could make sure it was her.

“Thank God she answered,” Thomas said. “It was kind of over.”

Then he ran some errands and stopped at his doctor’s office for a stress test.

“Where most phone scams trick people out of money, this one is especially troubling that it is scaring people out of their money,” Crum said. “Our hope is to educate the public so nobody falls prey to this scam.”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rossmannreport.

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