A scam in which people are led to believe a relative has been taken hostage and will not be released unless a large ransom is paid is duping Americans and utterly terrifying them in the process.
Typically the victim will receive a frantic phone call claiming a loved one's life is in danger. They are then told to wire money or leave it in a designated spot if they want to see them alive again.
The elaborate ruses are thought to be the work of Mexican cartels and often involve research on social media to discover a victim's close relationships.
Last September the FBI alerted the public to the scam but a detailed account from a victim posted on Reddit has highlighted the severity of incidents...
As I am walking out of work, I finally check my phone and see I have 4 or 5 missed calls from the same number, all within a few minutes time span. I also notice I have a text from my younger brother a few minutes before the phone calls. The phone starts ringing again, so, naturally, I answer it. Shouting and commotion-- I start to worry and am a little confused. "Who is this? Hello? Hello!" I tell them my name.
"Your brother has been in an accident, he's very badly hurt man. He's bleeding really bad. He said to get your number and call you." I'm very panicked at this point, but trying to hold it together. I'm starting to put together in my mind, that text I received from my brother was probably sent while he was driving and he probably crashed. He lives in a part of the city with a lot of Mexicans, so the guy's Spanish accent checks out too, as well as the city area code. Then it get's way darker.
"I'm about to tell you something man, and I need you to listen. Your brother he's in a lot of trouble man (I'm thinking he's dying in a car crash) Your brother was texting on his phone and backed out and ran over my little nephew man! He left him in the street like a dog to died. He got scared and tried to run. I know it was a mistake but he left him like a dog. He's not breathing."
At this point, the text I received makes more since (texting and driving), he lives next to a bunch of little Mexican kids, so it is very plausible that he was not looking and accidently did something so terrible. This guy then explains to me through tears, and screaming that they ran down my brother who was trying to run, and have beat the shit out of him. They have him back at their house and have a gun to his head. I can hear screaming and shouting in the background, one of an English speaking person through Spanish. My first instinct is, he ran over a gang member's little kid, holy shit, holy shit. I immediately ask to talk to him to make sure he's still alive and haven't hurt him too bad (they say he's bleeding, but only needs stitches at this point). My thought is that this might be the last time I talk to my brother if something goes wrong, so they put him on the phone screaming "don't call the cops, don't call the cops!" and all I am saying over and over is "I love you, I love you, I'm gonna fix this, I love you."
This guy explains that obviously they have warrants and cant go to the cops, so I need to give them money in exchange for my brother's life. "Are you going to do this, yes or no, tell me now or I pull the trigger!" Of course, yes, yes, anything. I'm told if I hang up he dies, if they hear me talking to anyone else, he dies, if they hear me texting into my phone he dies. I'm told to drive to the nearest Walmart and fill out a money gram for 2000$ and send it to their relative in PR as to not have it tracked back to me. The moment they get the money they will put my brother on the phone, put him in a car and push him out at a hospital. I'm told to talk about sports as I wait in line in Walmart, and if they think something is up, they will just kill him. The entire time, this guy is switching between crying about his injured nephew, shouting at family members in the background, talking about how he is so sorry to do this to me, but they have no money and police records and they have to do it, but man to man I have his word they wont hurt my brother if I just do as they say. At that point I don't give a fuck, I am so scared to death that I will give them every dollar I have to save my brothers life, and know it needs to happen fast to get him to a hospital.
The lady spells the name wrong on the money gram, as I am reading it back to the guy on the phone I realize. He freaks the fuck out, I run back into the Walmart still on the phone, cut in front of 10 people, and say "You need to fix this please, now!" And the lady looks at me like what the fuck?
I walk back to my car as directed, and told to wait to see if it goes through. More crying and screaming in the background. I wonder if they are just taking my money and killing him anyway. They say the money didn't go through. I'm saying yes it did yes it did! "Do you want your fucking brother to die, stop fucking around get in there and send it again!" They put him back on the phone screaming incomprehensibly in pain. I go back in line. My card gets denied as it has hit its max. I tell them and they freak out and tell me to buy as many go cards as I can and read them the pin numbers. I do it. Another person gets on the phone "I'm going to give the phone to your brother. He will tell you what hospital we are taking him to. How many cards did you get?" I tell them 5, and he freaks the fuck out! We said 10! 10! I'm saying I have done everything they asked, just please let my brother go, he's got to be so fucking scared, he made a mistake, I'm so so sorry. Then the phone clicks off.
At this point I'm in my car crying because I'm sure they've killed him. I get a text from the number saying "We let your brother go. We got the money. God bless you." "Where! What hospital!" I text back. "He has his phone back, you can call him now." Panicked that he's bleeding in the street somewhere, I call my brother. After a few tries, he answers "Whatsup?" "Where the fuck are you? What hospital?" "What are you talking about, I'm at work?" And in that moment, I have never been more emotionally fucked in my entire life. Don't let this happen to you. It was perfect, they knew I had a brother, they fed on it to get me to tell him his name-- then they perfectly executed the rest on my fear for his life. I don't know how you could live with yourself after doing this. Apparently this is not a new scam. I know, the advice is to "just hang up," but when you are hearing your brother screaming in pain with a gun to his head in the background, it's just not an option. Fuck these people.
TLDR: Called by people saying my brother had run over a gang member's little kid while texting, and was being held ransom with a gun to his head. I wire them money from 3 hours away. My brother was at work the entire time.
EDIT: For clarification on two points 1) Right when I received the call and hear, "Your brother has been in a horrible car accident," my first mistake was saying, "Who, (Brothers Name)?" But, at the time I was so panicked that I would never even have considered that someone would lie about something like that. So they used his name against me by confirming it multiple times. I know I fucked up there. I feel sick about it.
2) When I asked for them to put my brother on the phone, it lasted all of about 5 seconds. The voice was crying and yelling through some sort of gag just barely understandable saying, "DON' CALL THE COPS DON'T CALL THE COPS." Again, another mistake: Instead of channeling Liam Neison, I just wanted to make sure my brother knew I loved him, so the time I could have used to MAYBE realize it didn't sound like him I just spent saying "I love you for 5 seconds, because I wanted him to know that if he really did get murdered.
This is one of those things that if you would have told me about it before hand I would have thought there's no way they could dupe me... But something about it being your brother just clouds your mind. I feel sick to my stomach I fell for it. Bank is looking into it-- doesn't sound promising. Cops have a report-- also not promising. Called Verizon-- burner phone. Called Walmart. Nothing.
The worst part: I called the number back this morning and they were still fucking using it and answered, "why'd you hang up. Next time your brother dies." (clearly doing this to multiple people a day) I tried to play it along so I could drive to the police station with them on the line, but eventually the guy says, "wait. You're calling back from yesterday. FUCK YOU!" and hangs up.
EDIT 2: Thanks for all the feedback, suggestions, etc. To the people pointing out the "red flags," especially the Puerto Rico part, my immediate response was "why cant I just wire the money to you (Charlotte, NC--704 area code)," and every time I would sound unsure at all about a detail "Stop fucking asking stupid questions man or we just hang up and kill him now." I was too scared to risk it and have that weigh on my conscience the rest of my life if I was wrong. It's the worst looking back at it now, but I'm happy to see this getting attention though, and hopefully it will save someone from having to go through this. And one of my students was in line behind me with his parents in the Walmart-- which will be a fun story on Monday.
After a day of reflection, my biggest regret is not handling it like this.
Cases have been reported in New York, Nevada, Texas and California.
So far no one has been arrested over the scams and prosecutions seem unlikely.
Jack Richter, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, said: "It's really difficult to find an individual at the end of that wire transfer.
"Typically it is sent to Mexico. You'll find an agent there shrugging his shoulders."