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Thursday, February 21 , 2019, 1:15 am | Fair 47º


Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo Counties See Spike in ‘Virtual Kidnapping’ Scams

Perpetrators have called victims to demand ransom for a relative or friend they’ve pretended to kidnap

Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties have seen a spike recently in “virtual kidnapping” extortion schemes, according to law enforcement officials.

The scams involve individuals or criminal organizations calling victims and demanding ransom for a relative or friend they say they’ve kidnapped, even though no kidnapping has occurred.

Local and state law enforcement, along with the FBI, have received reports of the schemes over the last decade, and local cases have occurred over the past two months, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department.

Only one of a handful of calls to Sheriff’s Department dispatch was elevated to a “significant incident,” when scammers were successfully able to extort an undisclosed amount of money from a Montecito family on Oct. 1, sheriff’s spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said.

The success of the calls, she said, depends on the sense of panic and urgency callers generate.

“While no actual kidnapping has taken place, the callers often use co-conspirators to convince their victims of the legitimacy of the threat,” Hoover said. “For example, a caller might attempt to convince a victim that his daughter was kidnapped by having a young female scream for help in the background during the call.”

Information on victims is often gathered through social media, she said.

Scammers, who sometimes pose as members of corrupt law enforcement or drug cartels, usually ask for payment via immediate wire transfer, and the amount of ransom demanded tends to decrease with the victim’s resistance.

If someone finds themselves faced with a ransom call, the Sheriff’s Department recommends hanging up, contacting family members and notifying law enforcement.

Questions about whether a call represents an actual kidnapping or just a scheme should immediately be directed to local law enforcement or the FBI.

According to Hoover, possible scam indicators include:

  • Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone, insisting you remain on the line
  • Calls do not come from the victim’s phone
  • Callers try to prevent you from contacting the “kidnapped” victim
  • Multiple successive phone calls
  • Incoming calls made from an outside area code
  • Demands for ransom money to be paid via wire transfer, not in person

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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