Consumer Protection

Kidnapping Scams and How to Spot Them!

By Sheryl Harris, Director Cuyahoga County Department of Consumer Affairs

An Ohio mom drops her son off at a sleep-over camp in Pennsylvania. The next day, she answers her cell and hears a weeping child say, “Mom, Mom, you have to help me.” Between sobs, he tells her that he’s been beaten up and has been taken to a warehouse.

Then a man gets on the phone and says he’s holding her son until she pays $10,000.

The mom hangs up and tries to reach her son’s camp, but the lines are down. She drives to her local police station.

The angry kidnapper keeps calling. She keeps hanging up. At last, she reaches the police station. Officers there have to contact the Pennsylvania State Patrol to raise someone at the camp. And then, after what seems like forever, she hears her child’s voice. He’s safe and sound at camp. “It just gutted me,” the mom told our office after the ordeal had ended.

It’s hard for most people to imagine the elaborate stories scammers make up to try to panic people into paying them. But these gut-punch scams abound. People are told their bank accounts are about to be seized because their Social Security number was linked to a crime. Grandparents get calls from sobbing 20-somethings who sound just like a beloved grandchild, one asking for bail money after causing a crash after texting while driving. Or, in the kidnapping scam reported to our office, a scammer used computer-manipulated sounds of a crying child to try to ensnare a worried mom.

In the kidnap scam I described, the local police tracked the call to a disposable phone in Puerto Rico – nowhere near the mom or child. The call log showed the phone dialed numbers sequentially before someone answered. Like most scam calls, this one was just random, a story in search of a victim.

It can be hard to disengage from the intense drama scammers try to create. But people who avoided losing money to a scams – including this mom — often tell us that simply hanging up the phone gave them time to think critically about the call.

  • Here are some strategies that you can use to avoid scams:
  • Don’t answer or return calls you aren’t expecting. Scammers are pros at what they do. Don’t give them the chance to get their hooks in you.
  • Use voicemail to screen your calls. Don’t respond to vague or ominous calls. That’s how scams start.
  • Think about how you can independently verify information. If you accidentally pick up and hear something upsetting, hang up and call a friend, relative, police for a reality check.
  • If a caller asks you to pay with retail or gaming gift cards, money wires or by mailing cash, hang up. Those are payment methods scammers prefer because they’re hard for law enforcement to trace.

Finally, if you do have a brush with a scammer, report it. The information you share could help protect others.