Several families in the Santa Clarita Valley have been victims of international extortionists demanding ransom money for bogus threats of kidnapping.
Since Tuesday when The Signal published one father’s ordeal dealing on the phone with extortionists threatening to harm his daughter, other SCV parents contacted the paper with their own horror stories.
“These schemes are known as virtual kidnappings,” FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller told The Signal Friday. “And we have seen a rise in complaints from individuals who have been victimized, including many who have sent money overseas.
Scott, a father who lives in Saugus, received a call on his cell phone and heard what he thought was his younger daughter screaming into the phone ‘‘Dad, help me, they have me in a van and I’m scared.”
“My heart stopped,” he told The Signal later, saying he was shaken, moved to tears, and relieved of the emotional pain only when his older daughter phoned her little sister and found her safe at home.
Scott, it turns out, was not Santa Clarita Valley’s only victim of such an insidious extortion attempt.
Rochelle Karlin was shopping at Walmart when a call came through on her cell phone.
“About a week ago, while shopping alone in the Carl Boyer Walmart, I received the same call (as Scott).”
The caller said he had her daughter in a van, threatening to harm her if she didn’t send money to him through Western Union.
“I was shaken to the core,” Karlin told The Signal.
Inside the store, with no one to turn to, she became frantic, she said.
“Since I was alone I didn’t have anyone with me to call my daughter. The security people there were not helpful at all.
“I was lucky because firemen walked in and helped me by taking over (control) my phone,” she said. “They knew it was a scam. Without them I don’t know what I would have done.”
Karlin noted: “Sounds like this scam is really making the rounds.”
Sadly, not every victim learns of the scam in time.
Kim Ritter, of SCV, is a 34-year-old single mother on disability with one daughter.
Extortionists called her on Thanksgiving Day. She was out of town visiting her grandfather when she got call on her cell phone identifying it as being from a “restricted number.”
“The first thing I heard was my daughter screaming her head off,” she said. “Then a man with a heavy Mexican accent said ‘Is this Kim?’ I said yes.
“He said ‘Shut the f— up. We have your daughter. I have a gun to her head.”
Ritter said “pure panic” set in and she started crying.
“He said ‘Your daughter was in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ I was hysterical. They told me to get some money. I told him ‘I’m disability. I only have $200.’ He said go the ATM.”
Ritter said the caller directed her to the ATM nearest to her and then directed her to the nearest Western Union outlet. In the panic, Ritter disclosed her location.
“He knew the gas stations in the area,” she said.
She did as she was told but found the Western Union closed. Undeterred, the caller directed her to each of the next Western union branches – all closed.
By this time, Ritter – still shaking, still crying and told to “shut up” – was driving the freeways looking for a place to wire money.
She finally sent the money as directed through Money Gram to a woman in Mexico, she said.
And she was told to wait in the parking lot until the money was received.
“He said ‘You better tell your daughter to calm down now,’ and he said “Don’t leave the parking lot.’”
Once the money transfer went through, Ritter said the caller told her to rip up the Money Gram receipt, then hung up.
When she left the parking lot, she said, she got a phone call from her daughter. She said a man on the found told her ‘We’ve got a gun to your mom’s head; how much is your mother worth?’”
At that point, Ritter was pulling into the driveway of her grandfather’s home.
“I collapsed in the driveway,” she said, once she knew it was a scam.
When Ritter shared her story with The Signal she couldn’t stop crying.
“For days I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I don’t know how they got my name, how they got my daughter’s name.
“People have really got to be made aware,” she said. “Parents need to know there are some sick people out there. The more people who know about this, maybe we can stop it.”
There are many people victimized by the scam, FBI spokeswoman Eimiller said, with many people paying the extortionists.
“The FBI has made an effort to publicize this scheme, among many others that are prevalent, through the media, our website at fbi.gov and by training police departments.”
Four months ago, detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department Robbery-Homicide Division issued a warning to the public about a recent rash of phone scams involving a threat that a family member is being held hostage, and will not be released until the victim’s family wires money.
“The victims are contacted by a suspect who states they are holding a family member hostage,” they warned.
“The caller then demands money to be wired, or they will kill or hurt the hostage. The suspect advises the victim to go to an ATM to withdraw money, and then send the money via wire services.”
The LAPD said in the news release that the scam phone calls were originating from Mexico.
Ritter’s advice to SCV parents is: “Do not answer calls that say ‘restricted number.’”
Scott said he made sure all “of our location services on our phones and Facebook are off.”
Each of them said they do not want to see another parent suffer the way they did.
Ritter said her ordeal lasted “two hours, 37 minutes, 40 seconds.”
“I remember every word,” she said. “Word for word.” And, Ritter did not rip up the receipt. She gave it to sheriff’s detectives. She had ripped up a random piece of paper instead.