Oakland school officials are asking parents to stay alert after some families received phone calls falsely claiming that a student had been injured or kidnapped.

Scam phone callers use “virtual kidnapping” technique on Oakland parents

on September 28, 2016

Just a few weeks after the new school year began, two families in Oakland had terrifying moments when they received threatening calls about their kids, asking for a kidnapping ransom or medical treatment fees. But both calls turned out to be scams.

According to John Sasaki, communications director for the Oakland United School District (OUSD), both calls were to families with students at Claremont Middle School. During the week of August 22, two parents got a call from a scammer who claimed that they had kidnapped their child and asked for a ransom to be immediately transferred. The second call, during the week after the Labor Day vacation, asked a grandfather for fees to treat his granddaughter’s broken nose.

“In both cases, families called the school and found out very quickly that their children were fine and uninjured and where they should be,” Sasaki said. He praised their actions as the right decision after receiving these calls.

These two scam calls did not seem to be specifically targeting these two families, and the callers did not have any personal information, such as children names or ages. “This is what they do. They call just random phone numbers and some of them may go to the parents,” said Sasaki. “They’re playing with people’s quick reaction for money.”

The OUSD has sent out an alert to the entire Claremont Middle School community and passed on the same information to all the principals in its network. OUSD Police Chief Jeff Godown has suggested parents hung up the phone if they receive these calls, write down the number and then call the school and police.

Though both Sasaki and Godown repeated several times during interviews that “this is a serious crime,” the alert is all the school district could do about it. “We certainly hope that anybody who is—or was—doing this would stop permanently very soon,” Sasaki said. “But there is certainly no way where we can prevent these calls coming through.”

Godown also said that no actions could be taken since no damages really happened within the range of the school district. But he did warn parents to be aware of their children’s schedules and whereabouts. “Know more about your kid and educate them more about public safety. Just keep in mind of your kid’s schedule, when they’re going to school and when they’re coming to home,” he suggested.

No other incidents have been reported in the district so far, but Sasaki said the lack of reports to the schools doesn’t mean that there haven’t been more scam calls. “There has been this kind of thing happening in the Bay Area all the time,” he said.

Prentice Danner, an FBI public affairs specialist for the San Francisco Division, confirmed the difficulties of keeping records in these cases. “We only know what are reported to us. … But there are people who figured out the extortion and didn’t tell us. There are also people who paid [the] ransom and didn’t report to us,” he said. Danner also said that the FBI will not keep a record of a scam call as a crime if there’s “no real victim there.”

But Danner did mention a rising trend of this kind of crime. In recent years, the FBI has been sending out alerts about scam calls like these to different regions all over the country, using the term “virtual kidnapping.”

“The virtual kidnappers will call a family member and say their loved ones have been kidnapped for ransom. Once the ransom is paid, that virtual kidnapper will sort of disappear,” Danner said. “This is nothing new, but as the technology develops, there’s more information on the internet, which also means more potential victims and more cases.”

In January, police in Santa Cruz sent out an alert about virtual kidnapping scam calls after three families were almost swindled the same weekend. In these three cases, scammers called victims with accurate last or first names. In Union City this June, scammers were reported to have targeted two families and tried to make them believe their mother or another beloved relative was in danger. The same month in Fremont, two mothers received scam calls stating that their daughters had been kidnapped.

The crime has become more and more complicated as people put more and more of their lives on social media—for example, information about their vacations. Danner used the example of someone on a cruise ship publishing information about his trip on social media. “He would be in a place which is known for no cell phone service. A virtual kidnapper could use that information to tell when it could be a good time to extort the family. And when the family call the person, they couldn’t reach him because his phone is out of service,” Danner said.

According to Godown, the Oakland Police Department (OPD) will handle any further investigation. An OPD spokesperson did not respond to interview requests about the state of any current investigations. Danner said it’s not likely the police department and FBI will investigate every virtual kidnapping scam call. “It’s hard to dedicate resources to that. The essential part is that there’s no victim in lots of cases, and we already have plenty of things on our plate where there are victims,” he said.

Even with the resources, tracking down the responsible groups can be extremely difficult. “Say that somehow the extortion call is recorded—it’s still hard to track [the numbers] and those numbers could come across the border and so on. There’re a lot of variables there,” Danner said.

Though no one in the two OUSD cases above actually paid a ransom, virtual kidnapping scam calls are still a problem, Godown said. “The problem is that they can call 200 people and run the scam on them,” he said. “But all they need is one person to give the money.”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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