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'It sounded like my child': the 'virtual kidnappers' scamming Americans

The Guardian The Guardian 25/04/2016 Sam Levin in San Francisco
Person dialing cell phone. © e_rasmus/Getty Images Person dialing cell phone.

Tracy Holczer was driving with a friend to their writers’ group in a suburb of Los Angeles when she got a terrifying call on her cellphone from a number she didn’t recognize. A hysterical girl was screaming on the other end of the line.

“Mommy, please help me! Someone grabbed me, and I’m in a van. I don’t know where I am!”

It was 4.45pm on 22 March, and it was immediately clear to Holczer that she was experiencing the most unimaginable horror any parent could comprehend: her 14-year-old daughter, Maddy, whom she had left at home 30 minutes earlier, had been kidnapped.

A man quickly got on the line and demanded that the mother withdraw money from her bank and transfer it to his account. He told her that if she or her friend contacted anyone, he would know, and if she refused to comply, he would kill Maddy – whom Holczer could periodically hear screaming in the background. “He said they are happy to send body parts,” the 48-year-old mother recalled.

Maddy, it turns out, was safely at a youth group – something her mother didn’t learn until after more than two harrowing hours of responding to the anonymous man’s demands and threats, ending in a full-body anxiety attack that nearly sent Holczer to the hospital. 

Holczer fell victim to a scam that law enforcement officials call “virtual kidnapping” – a sophisticated form of fraud that has increasingly plagued communities in California and throughout the US and can result in significant financial losses and intense trauma for families.

“It sounded like my daughter,” said Holczer, a children’s author, who said she lost roughly $3,300 during the ordeal in three separate money transfers the scammers convinced her to make. “She has a very distinct voice. I was immediately terrified. When you’re terrified, your brain just sort of stops working. It didn’t even occur to me it could be a scam.”

There has been a rash of virtual kidnappings in southern California, with more than 50 cases since the summer of 2015, according to Erik Arbuthnot, a special agent with the FBI and an expert in these crimes. “They are happening all across the country,” he said.

Versions of this scam have been around for a decade or so, evolving in recent years into the scheme that is terrorizing and extorting American families, Arbuthnot said.

Originally, scammers would mostly target US citizens on vacation in Mexico – typically by obtaining their personal information from a hotel, including an emergency contact, and then calling relatives, announcing a kidnapping and demanding ransom.

Tracy Holczer © Provided by Guardian News Tracy Holczer       

A few years ago, the virtual kidnappers began going after families in the US – a shift that dramatically increased the number of cases, with criminals developing the kind of refined techniques that duped Holczer, said Arbuthnot. “The pool of victims just exploded, because now the calls are coming in in English.”

There’s no concrete data on how frequently these cases occur, since victims may not report the incident at all – especially when they quickly realize it’s a scam.

There are, however, common strategies offenders use in the cases that escalate to money laundering.

“They’ll have somebody screaming in the background,” said Randy Tuinstra, a detective lieutenant of the Crescenta Valley station of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s office, which responded to Holczer’s case. “They’re hoping to get somebody panicked to get them to do what they say immediately.”

In real kidnapping and hostage cases, the ransom demands are very high and the phone calls are short. In virtual kidnapping scams, Arbuthnot explained, the ransoms are relatively small – hundreds or thousands of dollars, not millions – and the offender’s main priority is to keep the victim on the phone as long as possible.

In Holczer’s case, two men on the line made it appear as if they knew significant details about her and her friend in the passenger seat and implied that they had hacked the women’s phones and were surveilling them as they drove to a local Western Union to transfer money. The men knew Holczer’s name and started using Maddy’s name after Holczer immediately addressed the girl as Maddy when she first heard her screams.

Arbuthnot said offenders are generally based in Mexico and choose victims by targeting wealthier neighborhoods – as was the case with a spike in these scams in Beverly Hills last year. Sometimes, they make a series of cold calls until one sticks – meaning they reach a victim who has a young daughter who is not with the parent at the time of the call.

If the circumstances line up, parents are quick to accept that the child’s screams – which could be a recording or a real person working with the scammers – belong to their daughter. “When we interview the victims, the majority of them absolutely 100% believe it … and that’s why they pay,” Arbuthnot said.

Holczer said she was frightened to end the call or ring 911. “I was thinking the phone call is the only connection I have to my child.”

By and large, scammers get away with the crime and the victims do not recover their money.

The Los Angeles sheriff classified the Holczer incident as a “grand theft by false pretenses” offense. When the FBI investigates virtual kidnappings, it considers federal charges of extortion, money laundering and wire fraud.

Tuinstra said he did not expect to make any progress in investigating Holzcer’s case. “Right now, there’s nothing more to go on.”

Law enforcement recommends that people who receive these kinds of calls immediately alert the authorities and attempt to locate their loved one.

Holczer at one point managed to text her husband, Kevin, but he didn’t see the message. The friend in her car eventually was able to call him, and he promptly located their daughter at the youth group and brought her home.

Kevin Holczer said he was lucky to experience only a very brief moment of terror on the short drive to pick up Maddy. “I just kept saying out loud over and over, ‘This can’t be true. This can’t be true.’ I couldn’t let myself believe it.”

By the time she arrived home and saw her daughter, around 7.15pm, Tracy collapsed. “My body completely fell apart. I had a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe. I had no control over my body, my limbs. I was just shaking.”

The incident has continued to take a toll on her mental health, weeks later, she said, noting that she sometimes feels triggered when her phone rings. “I have to remind myself she was not taken and that nothing bad happened,” she said.

The emotional distress, she said, has lingered: “Everywhere you go, you feel unsafe.”

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