Providence woman targeted in phony ‘virtual kidnapping’ scheme


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence Police say a local woman is home safe after being targeted by an alleged kidnapping scheme aimed at bilking her and her family members out of phony ransom money.

Maj. David Lapatin said the 64-year-old Providence woman received a phone call from a man Tuesday who claimed he had kidnapped her daughter in Miami, and threatened to harm the daughter if the woman did not wire him $1,000.

The woman first went to her bank at the man’s instruction, then to a Western Union inside a Stop & Shop to wire the money. She was then ordered to go to Lowe’s in Cranston, Lapatin said, where she remained from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. as the alleged con artist kept her on the phone and threatened her not to leave the store.

“They send them into this shock, and then they isolate them,” Lapatin said of the increasingly common phone scam known as virtual kidnapping. “They were on the phone with her telling her, ‘do not leave here, we’re watching you, we’ll harm you, we’ll harm your family.'”

Lapatin said the scammers also called the woman’s daughter, claiming they had kidnapped her mother, and the daughter reported it to the Miami Police. Those officers called Providence Police, who notified the FBI and started searching for the mother in Providence.

After about four hours of searching and pinging her phone, police eventually located her at the Lowe’s.

“We were just glad to get the woman home safe to her family,” Lapatin said.

The investigation into the alleged scammers has been turned over to the FBI.

FBI spokesperson Kristen Setera said there is a trend of virtual kidnappings in the U.S., and the calls are often coming from Mexico to U.S. victims. She said the schemes typically extort victims for $1,000-$2,000, claiming to have kidnapped their loved ones.

“The FBI treats virtual kidnappings for ransoms as real kidnappings until we have evidence to suggest otherwise,” Setera said. “Unfortunately, due to the mechanics of the extortion scheme, it is unlikely the FBI will ever be able to recover any money lost in a virtual kidnapping.”

She declined to comment on the specific investigation in Providence.

Lapatin said anyone who receives one of these calls should hang up and call the person who was supposedly kidnapped, and then call the police. The FBI also says victims should not agree to pay a ransom and in most cases, the best course of action is to hang up and call law enforcement.

The FBI provided a list of indicators and tips on how people can protect themselves from falling victim to these crimes.

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 members 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.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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