Police warn of virtual kidnapping scam


WATSONVILLE — The Watsonville Police Department is warning the public to beware of so-called virtual kidnappings, where suspects threaten victims without laying a hand on them.

Recently, a Central Coast family vacationing in Mexico nearly fell victim to such a scam before alerting authorities.

According to WPD spokeswoman Michelle Pulido, the family was in Guadalajara when they received a call from someone who told them they were being kidnapped and demanded a ransom.

The victim, identified only as “Jane,” told police the phone calls threatened violence and were so intimidating that they nearly gained full cooperation.

“He said, ‘we’re going over there and get in the room and kill all you guys or cut you up,’” said Jane. “It was hard, so we did exactly what they want.”

In virtual kidnappings, the criminals and victims never see each other face-to-face.  Everything is done over the phone, said WPD Det. Gustavo Zamora.

In this case, the suspects demanded that the victims give up their family’s contact information, and then contacted the family in Watsonville, demanding $50,000.

The suspects also told the victims to purchase a pre-paid phone and instructed to stay off their personal phones, making it nearly impossible for anyone to get ahold of them.

“They want money and they want it fast before their victims and the families realize that it’s a scam,” Zamora said. “In this case, the virtual kidnappers called the (victims’) family here in Watsonville multiple times and demanded money. They threatened to kill the family and their children if they didn’t pay the $50,000 ransom.”

But the victims’ family came to WPD, where detectives, as well as the FBI, were called in. After investigating for nearly 30 hours, a Mexican anti-kidnapping team found the family cooped up in their hotel room.

“They show me the badge and told me, ‘Oh you’re safe, just hang up the phone. Don’t listen to them. This is over.’ I realized that we were safe. I cried, I start crying a lot,” said Jane.

The FBI suspected it was dealing with a virtual kidnapping and confirmed it as soon as agents tracked the caller’s phone to a Mexican prison, which the FBI has identified as the source of many similar calls, Pulido said.

It is not clear whether police in Mexico found any suspects.

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