KISSIMMEE – The phone rings, and it turns out to be a threatening voice: the caller is from Puerto Rico, and is demanding that money be sent to a bank on the island.
The reason: a member of their family has been kidnapped, and the relatives in Central Florida better send some cash if they ever want to see their loved one again.
If it sounds like the kind of wild and crazy call that most people would dismiss as either a prank or the voice of a complete nut, at least two victims have been taken in by the threat.
“We just want to make the public aware that this is a scam,” said Twis Lizasuain, public information officer for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office. “Do not send money. Report it to law enforcement immediately.”
The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office has been investigating the calls since Saturday, when deputies first started taking reports from people who had received the call from a person speaking in Spanish, who informed the county residents that a member of their family was being held against their will. The caller then demanded that the family send money to an undisclosed bank account in Puerto Rico.
So far, eight people have reported getting the call, and in three of the five cases from the weekend, the caller initially said their family member had been in a car accident and gotten injured. The caller threatened to further harm the family member if money wasn’t sent immediately.
Two of the calls claimed the caller had kidnapped a family member. All of the calls had similar phone numbers, and each time, there was a demand that money be sent to Puerto Rico.
Bizarre? Perhaps, but sadly not unique, Lizasuain said.
“It’s not uncommon,” she said of these phone scams. “It’s been done before.”
Once the number of victims started adding up, the sheriff’s office decided to issue a warning to the public to ignore the threats if they get targeted.
“It’s just that we’ve received so many reports and actually got two more yesterday, and we now have a total of eight victims,” Lizasuain said. “The similarity is they all speak Spanish and they claim the victim is in Puerto Rico, and they demand money.”
The sheriff’s office issued a public warning about the calls, urging local residents that “If you receive a similar call, remain calm and contact your family member immediately. If you are unable to contact your family member, call law enforcement immediately.”
Deputies are encouraging victims to make an attempt to verify the authenticity of the caller’s claim “by asking questions to verify the identity of the kidnapped victim,” the news release states. “Even if you have confirmed your family member is safe, report the incident to law enforcement. When you report the incident, provide law enforcement with the following: confirmation your family member is safe, specific demands made by the caller, gender and accent of the caller, date, time and place the caller arranged for the ransom to be paid, and any other information that will be helpful in locating the caller.”
Unfortunately, Lizasuain said, the scam worked at least twice.
“In two of the eight cases, the victims sent money,” she said.
Although money scams like this often target seniors, Lizasuain said the two victims were a teenager and a middle-aged man.
“That’s the interesting thing,” she said. “The youngest victim was a high school teenager. And the second victim wasn’t a senior citizen, either, it was an adult. In one of the cases, the individual (who got the call) tried to call his son in Puerto Rico, and his son didn’t answer the phone right away, so he sent the money. In the other case, the teenage female victim, through her brother, sent $700.”
Although Lizasuain said this is a relatively new scam in Osceola County, she’s heard of similar cases being reported in neighboring counties.
“It’s not a new scam,” she said. “It’s just something we want the public to be aware of.”
Anyone with information about these calls is being asked to contact the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office at 407-348-2222 or Crimeline at 800-423-TIPS (8477). Calls made to Crimeline remain anonymous, and tips that lead to the felony arrest of suspects are eligible for cash rewards up to $1,000.
According to the web site Scambusters.com, phone scams are irresistible whenever thieves sense an opportunity to rip people off, either by scaring or threatening them, or by playing off their sense of good will and charity.
The bigger the tragedy – such as the devastating earthquake in Japan – the more tempting it is to criminals, the site notes.
“Crooks have launched a vicious and heartless exploit of public curiosity and generosity with a wave of scams linked to the Japan earthquake and tsunami,” the site notes. “Within minutes of the tragedy, they were posing as fund-raisers seeking donations online and via email and phone solicitations, while bogus news pages uploaded malware to unsuspecting victims’ PCs.”
To learn more about phone and Internet scams, log on to http://www.scambusters.org/index.html.
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