NIPOMO, Calif. - UPDATE - There's been another case of a "virtual kidnapping scam" on the Central Coast, this time in Nipomo, after a woman called the Sheriff's Office Friday to report what she thought was the kidnapping of her daughter in progress.
A string of similar virtual kidnapping extortion scams have been reported this year in Santa Barbara County and now apparently have spread to San Luis Obispo County.
There was panic and fear for the Nipomo woman after she said she received a phone call from a man who claimed to have kidnapped her daughter, who attends Dorothea Lange Elementary School, and was demanding an immediate ransom payment for her safe return.
"The Sheriff's Department called us right around 11:45 am", said Lange Elementary School Principal Michael Flushman, "they informed us that we should go into lockdown immediately, we didn't exactly know why, they informed us it had to do with a student and a family."
The school remained in lockdown for more than 30 minutes, long enough for deputies to make contact with the girl to make sure she was safe, reunite her with mother and declare the entire ordeal a hoax.
"We sent out a mass email that the school is on lockdown and all the students were safe and there was no immediate concern, it was a precaution", Flushman said, "we also did a call out and we put it on Facebook as well."
The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office says people behind virtual kidnapping extortion rely on panic, fear and urgency to get their victims to pay ransom as quickly as possible before the scam is detected or law enforcement gets involved.
Other techniques used in the scams, callers will try to keep family members on the phone, insisting they stay on the line and preventing them from contacting the alleged "kidnapping" victim.
The Sheriff's Office says there usually are successive phone calls made from an outside area code with demands for ransom money paid via wire transfer and not in person.
The scam artists often use social media to gather information and track their potential victims, according to the Sheriff's Office.
"Everything is out there as far the internet goes, we tell too much", said parent and grandparent Laurie Smith, who, like her neighbors in the rural area around Lange School, learned of the kidnapping scam and lockdown through Facebook, "its just part of the structure of what's going on in our world these days, you have to be a little more cautious when you're out there, especially with kids."
The Sheriff's Office says if you think you're the victim of a virtual kidnapping phone scam, hang up the phone immediately and contact family members and then notify law enforcement.
The community may also report virtual kidnappings to the FBI Los Angeles Office at 310-477-6565.
The Dorothea Lange Elementary School in Nipomo was placed on lockdown Friday morning while San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's deputies investigated a possible kidnapping.
The incident began when the Sheriff's Office received a call from a mother worried that her daughter had been kidnapped after she received a call from a man claiming he had kidnapped her. The man then instructed the Nipomo mother to go to the bank and withdraw money for ransom payment, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Deputies quickly responded to the girl's school.
The lockdown was lifted after about 40 minutes when deputies located the girl and made sure she was safe. Mother and daughter were reunited.
Investigators believe this was a case of a known scam affecting the Central Coast and other areas of the country known as "Virtual Kidnapping."
In this type of scam, the caller contacts the victim to demand payment for the safe return of a "kidnapped" family member, friend or other loved one. Sometimes, these callers may use an accomplice to sound more convincing. Authorities say no kidnapping actually takes place.
"Most schemes use various techniques to instill a sense of fear, panic, and urgency in an effort to rush the victim into making a very hasty decision. The criminal’s success depends on this generated urgency and fear," said the SLO County Sheriff's Office in a Statement.
"They know they only have a short time to exact a ransom payment before the victims and their families unravel the scam or authorities become involved. Criminals often use social media to gather information and track their potential victims," said the Sheriff's Office.
The Sheriff's Office recommends residents look for the following to avoid becoming a victim:
- 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.
Anyone that received a call from someone demanding ransom for an alleged kidnap victim and you suspect it's a scam, authorities recommend you contact family members immediately and notify law enforcement. The community may also report virtual kidnappings to the FBI Los Angeles Office at 310-477-6565.