Kidnapping Phone Scams Targeting Families of California School District Students

Since the start of the school year, several scam kidnapping calls targeting the families of Oakland, California, students have been reported.

Kidnapping Phone Scams Targeting Families of California School District Students

Photo via Adobe, by Syda Productions

OAKLAND, Calif. — Parents of children enrolled in the Oakland Unified School District are increasingly being targeted with kidnapping phone scams.

Last week, three families in only three days received calls from someone telling them they’ve kidnapped their child and that they wouldn’t get their child back unless the parents paid a ransom, reports ABC7News. The caller also knew the names of their children. The first call was received on December 13, and the other two calls were received on December 15. Over the school year, several more scam kidnapping calls have been reported.

In all three of last week’s cases, the students were in school and safe.

Some scammers are even using artificial intelligence (AI) when targeting their victims. CNN reports that one mother believes the scammers cloned her 15-year-old daughter’s voice when they called her.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “The scam typically begins with a phone call saying your family member is being held captive. The caller may allege your daughter has been kidnapped and you hear a female screaming in the background. Another variant of the fraud has a family member being held because he/she caused an auto accident, is injured, and won’t be allowed to go to the hospital until damages are paid. Callers will typically provide the victim with specific instructions to ensure a safe return of the family member. You may be ordered to stay on the line until money is wired. The caller may claim not to have received the money and may demand more payment.”

It’s not just families of K-12 students being targeted or those living in Oakland. It’s a nationwide problem, and the families of college students have also been on the receiving end of virtual kidnapping phone scam threats, says the University of Oregon Police Department.

According to the FBI and the NIH, virtual kidnapping scams often have the following characteristics:

  • Calls are usually made from an outside area code, sometimes from Puerto Rico with area codes 787, 939, and 856 (but often will “spoof” caller ID to appear to come from a known or local number)
  • Calls do not come from the alleged kidnapped victim’s phone
  • May involve multiple phone calls
  • Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
  • Callers try prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim
  • Ransom money is only accepted via wire or online transfer.

The NIH recommends that anyone who receives a call from someone demanding ransom for a kidnapped victim consider taking the following steps:

  • Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to the victim directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
  • If the callers don’t let you speak to the victim, ask them to describe the victim or describe the vehicle the victim drives, if applicable.
  • Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim if he/she speaks.
  • Attempt to call, text, or contact the alleged victim via social media. Request that the victim call back from his or her cell phone.
  • While staying on the line with the alleged kidnappers, try to call the alleged kidnap victim from another phone.
  • To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing. down the demand, or tell the caller you need additional time to meet their demands.
  • Don’t directly challenge or argue with the caller. Keep your voice low and steady.
  • Request the alleged kidnapper allow the victim to call you back from his/her cell phone.
  • At the earliest opportunity, notify the police.

Additionally, NIH recommends checking social media account privacy settings and not disclosing too much information on social media. The more information a scammer has on a target, the more the scammer can convince the victim the scam is real.

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About the Author

robin hattersley headshot

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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