The phone rings. A garbled voice on the other end speaks.
“We have your child.”
There is the sound of screaming in the background, as if someone is scared or hurt. We will hurt your child, the voice says, unless you wire money to a specific bank account.
Parents in Montgomery County shouldn’t fall for it.
Thankfully, these phone calls are few and far between, but enough have happened in the county recently that local police and school officials have issued a warning to school communities, including those in Gaithersburg.
Even more thankfully, no kidnappings have actually occurred. It’s just the latest flare-up of a long-running phone scam designed to prey on parents’ natural instincts and separate them from their money.
“We have had a handful of reports from parents who say they’ve received a call,” said Derek Turner, a spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools. “You can’t help but panic if your child is believed to be kidnapped (but) this has been around for years and years.”
During what is known as a virtual kidnapping scam, community members receive a call from an unfamiliar number, often an international area code. Those who have received such a call reported hearing screaming sounds in the background and a message from the caller claiming they have the person’s child and will harm the child unless ransom is paid.
Police and school officials offer the following advice if you receive such a call:
- Do not wire money;
- Contact your child’s school to confirm your child is safe; and
- Contact the police via 911 or on the non-emergency number, 301.279.8000.
Virtual kidnapping scams first rose to prominence in part as a way of extorting American tourists traveling abroad. The scam is widespread and well-known enough that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is involved in tracking and stopping this criminal activity.
The FBI also has released guidance to the public on how to identify the scam and what to do should a call be received.
Typically, according to the FBI guidance, scammers display one or more of the following behaviors:
- Making every attempt to keep the intended scam victim on the phone;
- Calls do not come from the purported kidnapping victim’s phone;
- Callers attempt to prevent scam targets from contacting the “kidnapped” victim;
- Multiple successive phone calls;
- Incoming calls made from an outside area code; and
- Demands for ransom money to be paid via wire transfer, not in person; ransom demands may go down quickly.
Although only a “handful” of these calls have been attempted in Montgomery County in recent weeks, Turner said a little education and preparedness can go a long way in avoiding panic—and fraud.
“We want to inoculate all community members,” Turner said, “so they know what to do if they get one of these calls.”