Schools warn of ‘vir­tual kid­nap­ping’ scam tar­get­ing par­ents

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Collin Bink­ley

Schools across the U.S. are warn­ing about a scam to con­vince par­ents that their chil­dren have been kid­napped — even though they haven’t — and to col­lect ran­som money.

Cases of “vir­tual kid­nap­ping” have been re­ported over the past two months in Vir­ginia, Cal­i­for­nia, Texas, Ari­zona and other states. Au­thor­i­ties say the scam often tar­gets the par­ents of col­lege stu­dents, trick­ing some into pay­ing thou­sands of dol­lars and ap­pears to be on the rise na­tion­ally.

In many cases, par­ents re­ceive a call from a stranger who claims to have kid­napped their child, and can often pro­vide the child’s name or other de­tails. Some par­ents have re­ported hear­ing screams or a muf­fled cry in the back­ground. Then the caller orders par­ents to wire money in ex­change for their child’s re­lease.

“They re­ally prey on peo­ple’s fears, and in this case it’s a very in­tense fear, think­ing that your child’s been kid­napped,” said Jay Gru­ber, po­lice chief at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, where a par­ent re­ported the scam on Thurs­day. In that case, the par­ent used so­cial me­dia to con­tact the child, and didn’t pay the ran­som.

Usu­ally, the ran­som de­mand is be­tween $600 and $1,900, ac­cord­ing to the FBI’s New York field of­fice, which is­sued a warn­ing about the scam in Jan­uary 2015. FBI of­fi­cials said they weren’t avail­able to com­ment on Fri­day. Gru­ber said the scheme emerged in the U.S. more than a year ago but has be­come more com­mon re­cently.

Thirkel Free­man was driv­ing with his wife, Coretta, last week when a man called Coretta’s cell phone and said he had kid­napped their daugh­ter, Ki­auna, a se­nior at the Univer­sity of Mary­land. The caller even put a woman on the phone who claimed to be Ki­auna and had a sim­i­lar voice, plead­ing them to pay the ran­som. The man threat­ened to kill Ki­auna if they didn’t.

“He says, ‘If you play games with me, it’s over,’” said Thirkel, of White Plains, Mary­land. “At that point, we were at the peak of trauma­ti­za­tion.”

Coretta called the po­lice, who ar­rived and guided the cou­ple through the call. But the Free­mans ul­ti­mately wired $1,300 to the caller be­fore find­ing out Ki­auna was safe on campus.

Sev­eral col­leges have is­sued alerts about the scam, in­clud­ing Ge­orge­town, Ari­zona State Univer­sity, Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Texas at Ar­ling­ton.

The calls often come from out­side area codes, some­times from Puerto Rico, ac­cord­ing to the FBI. If some­one calls de­mand­ing a ran­som, au­thor­i­ties say par­ents should try to text their child or reach them through so­cial me­dia to con­firm their child’s safety. Or they can ask the al­leged kid­nap­per to have their child call back from his or her own phone.

“Once you find out that your child is fine, just dis­en­gage with them,” Gru­ber said. “Or, if your child is with you, tell them to go to hell and hang up on them.”

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