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Sheriff’s Office warns of virtual kidnapping schemes

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office is warning residents on the Central Coast about the rise in “Virtual Kidnapping” schemes.

Extortion calls, also called “Virtual Kidnappings”, have been reported in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties as recent as September and October 2016.

These schemes involve a person or criminal organization calling a victim and demanding money for the return of a kidnapped family member or friend. The Sheriff’s Office says that while no kidnapping has actually taken place, these callers can go to great lengths to convince their victims that they’re serious.

“For example, a caller might attempt to convince a victim that his daughter was kidnapped by having a young female scream for help in the background during the call,” says Kelly Hoover with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

“Callers, sometimes represent themselves as members of a drug cartel or corrupt law enforcement. They will typically provide the victim with specific instructions to ensure the safe ‘return’ of the alleged kidnapped individual,” says Hoover. “These instructions usually involve demands of a ransom payment and instructions usually require the ransom payment be made immediately and most often by wire transfer. These schemes involve varying amounts of ransom demands, which often the amount will decrease at the first indication of resistance.”

These criminals know time is of the essence, and count on a willing victim’s sense of urgency and fear to pull off a successful scheme before it unravels and law enforcement gets involved. Now more than ever, criminals make use of social media to track their potential victims. The Sheriff’s Office cautions residents on how much personal information should be posted to social media.

To avoid becoming a victim, the Sheriff’s Office encourages residents to look for the following indicators:

Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone, insisting you remain on the line. Calls do not come from the victim’s phone. Callers try to prevent you from contacting the “kidnapped” victim. Multiple successive phone calls. Incoming calls made from an outside area code. Demands for ransom money to be paid via wire transfer, not in person.

If you receive a phone call from a suspected kidnapper and believe it’s a scam, the Sheriff’s Office suggests you do the following:

Hang up the phone. Immediately contact family members. Notify law enforcement.

If you suspect the kidnapping is legitimate, contact the FBI or the nearest law enforcement agency immediately.

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