United States

Police Warn Public About ‘Virtual Kidnapping' Phone Scam

Palo Alto police said this specific scam is targeting victims across the United States

Police in Palo Alto are warning people across the country about a phone scam that is demanding people hand over money in exchange for a loved one supposedly in danger.

The scam involves a caller contacting the victim claiming that a family member or friend was tangled in a car crash, according to police. The caller says that his vehicle was marred in the collision before demanding that the victim of the scam cough up money via an electronic transfer to pay for the damages. If they don't comply, the scammer says the loved one will be kidnapped and hurt.

The caller insists that the victim stay on the phone and complete the money transfer to ensure the safe release of the loved one, according to police. The act of keeping the caller on the phone prevents them from calling police.

Palo Alto police said this specific scam is targeting victims across the United States. 

In order to prevent being scammed, police instruct potential victims to either hang up the phone if they receive a random call from a stranger, contact police or demand proof that their loved one is actually in harm.

Marianna Villaescusa with the Palo Alto Police Department encourages victims who can't bring themselves to hang up to press for specifics.

"What does my loved one look like?" she said. "What are they wearing? Can you describe their car? Can I speak with that person? Just ask very direct questions that will require a direct answer from them."

Los Angeles police and the FBI on Tuesday announced the arrest of a woman believed to be the ringleader of a virtual scam that victimized people in California and three other states. Dating back to 2015, victims paid $114,000 for loved ones who were never actually in danger, according to Los Angeles police. 

To date, no one in Palo Alto has lost money as a result of the scam.

Any victims of the scam are encouraged to contact Palo Alto police at 650-329-2413. People can email anonymous tips to paloalto@tipnow.org or call or text 650-383-8984.

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