WALPOLE, Mass. — Judy Bradley got a call one morning from her daughter Courtney. At least, she thought it was her daughter calling.
“‘[Her name] and number came up across the screen in my car,” Bradley said.
The Walpole mother said what happened over the next 20 minutes was one of the scariest moments in her life.
“Horrifying. It’s probably one of the worst experiences I’ve ever been through,” she said.
Bradley said the voice of a vulgar, aggressive woman told her Courtney had been kidnapped and her kidnappers would beat her daughter unless she electronically transferred their money. Bradley said what convinced her the call was real was the number on the screen and the screaming in the background.
“Honestly it sounded as if she were screaming. I just pictured her sitting in the corner screaming,” Bradley said.
Bradley said she ultimately used the Cash App to make three transfers totaling $1,000. It wasn’t until she got to work she realized it was a hoax.
“My co-worker said, ‘Hang up. It’s a scam,’” she said.
The FBI calls it the virtual kidnapping scam. Federal investigators warned about the extortion scheme as recently as 2022 and 2020. Earlier this year, Arkansas authorities said criminals were using “virtual kidnapping” to target Spanish-speaking individuals. In Bradley’s case, it appears the scammers were able to spoof her daughter’s cell phone number to make the ransom act more convincing.
“The emotional effect is really huge,” said Dr. Michelle DiBlasi, Chief of Inpatient Psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center.
DiBlasi said the scam is so effective because it plays on one of our worst fears: a loved one in danger. The screams and threats create a shot of adrenaline that can override our ability to think clearly.
“Your judgment becomes very poor because all your focus is on trying to save your child and you’re not able to think through rationally what you should do next,” DiBlasi said.
Bradley said what she should have done is end the call and try to call her daughter back.
“What I learned is I should have hung up and called back but I thought that was her phone,” Bradley said. “I didn’t want to risk losing her.”
The FBI says these are some of the tell-tale signs of a “virtual kidnapping” call:
- Scammers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
- Callers can’t answer simple questions about the hostage, like what they look like
- Ransom is demanded through peer-to-peer payment apps
- Callers request ransom is sent to multiple people in several small amounts
The National Institutes of Health says if this happens to you:
- Try to slow the situation down
- Request to speak to the victim directly
- Ask, “How do I know my loved on is okay?”
- If the caller won’t put them on the phone, ask them to describe the victim or their vehicle
- Tell the caller you need more time to meet their demands
- Call police as soon as you can
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