Virtual kidnapping scam spreading Downtown, say police

police_blotterBY YANNIC RACK |

Police warn that a virtual kidnapping scam is spreading in Lower Manhattan, with three Downtowners duped out of thousands of dollars over the course of two weeks by con artists calling to demand ransom for supposedly abducted family members.

First Precinct commanding officer Capt. Mark Iocco recently told locals to be on the lookout for the scammers, who call at random and demand the victims stay on the phone while they wire money to accounts in foreign countries.

“Someone’s going to call you up and say they have your son, your daughter, your mother, your father, and they’re going to hurt them unless you stay on the phone and wire money into an account,” Iocco said at the precinct’s community council meeting last month. “It’s a scam and everyone is falling for it, because they’re scared that something will happen to their loved ones.”

In three separate incidents since late January, workers in the Financial District, Tribeca and Hudson Square wired more than $10,000 to the con artists, according to police reports.

On Jan. 27, an executive at the ratings agency Moody’s was conned out of $2,000 by a man who threatened to kill his son while he was at work on the 28th floor of 7 World Trade Center.

“Unless you follow my instructions, I will kill your son,” the caller told the 48-year-old, and then demanded the victim wire the funds to Mexico City.

The father withdrew the cash from a nearby cash machine and sent it via Western Union before contacting the police.

Less than a week later, on Feb. 2, another man working on North Moore St. in Tribeca received a phone call saying that his daughter had been kidnapped.

The caller did not allow the victim to hang up the phone and similarly gave instructions to wire money to a Mexican location of Western Union.

The 51-year-old father cashed a check and sent $1,650. After the con artists hung up on him, he immediately called his daughter, who turned out to be unharmed and at her home in Boston.

In the third incident, a 20-year-old man working at ad agency KBS on Varick St. picked up a call from a stranger on Feb. 10 and was told that his father had run over someone’s child and was now being held hostage, demanding a ransom.

The police report noted that the victim transferred three checks via MoneyGram, each worth $3,000, and was told not to contact the police because the perpetrators all had warrants.

Capt. Iocco said the scams have been increasing all over the city in recent weeks, resulting in about 15 calls reported every day.

“It’s been happening all across the city,” Iocco said. “We had at least three in the neighborhood, where money was wired to Mexico. It’s totally out of control.”

Iocco said anyone receiving a similar ransom call should signal to someone else nearby to call 911, where operators are trained to instantly connect the caller to the Major Case Squad, which could then give exact instructions on what to say and do.

Back in mid-January, before the wave of virtual kidnappings hit Downtown, the F.B.I. and N.Y.P.D. both warned New Yorkers about the scam, saying in a press release that incidents have been rising in the city.

The bureau noted that the callers often use co-conspirators to convince their victims of the legitimacy of the threat, for example by convincing a victim that a family member had gotten into a car accident with a gang member.

“The individual calling pretends to be a friend or relative of the gang member and tells the victim that their family member is seriously injured and needs to go to the hospital, but that their friend will not allow them to go the hospital until he gets paid for the damages done to his vehicle,” the F.B.I. said in a statement.

“In another 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,” the statement continued, adding that some of the most prominent scams involve car accidents, drug debts, gang assaults, or persons being smuggled across the border.

“This is a scheme that takes advantage of some of the most vulnerable people in New York City,” said F.B.I. Assistant Director in Charge George Venizelos. “We need the public to be aware of this scam and call us if they have been a victim.”

Anyone with information about the kidnapping scams is asked to call the F.B.I.’s New York City office at 212-384-1000, or the NYPD’s Crime Stoppers hotline at 800-577-TIPS. If you’ve been the victim of an actual kidnapping, you should call 911.