LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — It only took a simple text message from an unknown phone number to tear away my naive sense of invincibility.
Just before 11 p.m. on Saturday, I received a message from one of my best friends who lives in Northern California explaining this was her new number until another cell phone arrived in the mail.
As the conversation unfolded, "Amanda" recounted a terrifying night when a man who appeared to be homeless held her at gunpoint, forced her to undress and then raped her in a dark alleyway.
Out of concern, I continued to engage in conversation to determine if she was in any form of danger and to see if the number really belonged to her.
About five minutes into the conversation I realized the messages, which included several emoticons and ellipses, were not similar to Amanda's writing style.
I then began to ask specific questions that only Amanda would know the answers to in order to confirm my suspicion that the number did not belong to her.
Feeling anxious about my own safety, I contacted the Los Angeles Police Department to inquire what measures should be taken to protect myself. An officer instructed me to block the phone number, and explained I could not file a report as no crime had occurred yet.
"Be aware anytime you get an unexpected contact," said Keven Chavez, public information assistant for the County of L.A. Department of Consumer and Business Affairs. "If someone is claiming to be your friend or family member, ask them an unrelated question that only you and that person would know. Sometimes they will even disguise the number from which they are calling. If you're not sure, end the conversation."
After speaking with Amanda, I was relieved to hear that she was in no form of danger. However, the following day I woke up to a text explaining a rock had been thrown through her bedroom window.
The timing of the cracked window could be coincidental; however, police in San Francisco plan to review surveillance video from a market across the street from her home.
While I was neither threatened nor asked to send money to whoever was operating the phone, I have no doubt the conversation would have led in that direction had I not blocked the number.
Detective Freddy Arroyo of LAPD's Robbery/Homicide Division explained this is the first instance he has heard of a local scam crossing through text messages.
"Our information is out there," said Arroyo. "In some cases, they have the person's name and the suspect has a general idea of the Los Angeles area. As far as how suspects are acquiring someone's information, we have not been able to figure that out yet."
Local scams are something you often hear about, but if push came to shove, would you know what measures to take in order to protect yourself in a time of crisis?
According to the LAPD, several different telephone scams involving the IRS, utility companies and government agencies have been reported so far this year. In most cases, the caller demands money be wired in exchange for protection.
Most recently, a scam involving calls from Mexico have targeted residents here in Southern California, making reference to a kidnapping situation.
"In the phone calls, the suspect will normally call someone and will ask for money to be wired," Arroyo explained. "We're finding there is some sort of a female screaming in the background with suspects telling people not to hang up the phone."
"In all cases, no one has been kidnapped," he added. "Our number one priority is to make sure the alleged kidnap victim is accounted for. We then forward all of our cases to the FBI for further investigation."
In order to avoid becoming a victim of extortion, authorities suggest being aware of the following:
— Be suspicious of callers who demand immediate payment for any reason
— Unsolicited calls or emails requesting personal or financial information
— Incoming calls made from an outside area code (out of state or out of the country)
— Callers who go to great lengths to keep you on the phone and/or make repeated phone calls
— Ransom money that is only accepted through a wire transfer service
If you receive a call from someone demanding money, authorities say you should remain calm, slow the situation down, avoid sharing any personal information and notify authorities.
Debit cards, credit cards and Green Dot MoneyPak numbers should never be given to a stranger.
Authorities advised that utility companies and government agencies will never contact you demanding immediate payment by prepaid or re-loadable debit cards.
In fact, to help minimize the amount of information an identity thief can steal, extra credit cards, a social security card, birth certificate or passport should not be carried in a wallet or purse unless needed, officers added.
"Scams are out there," said Arroyo. "We try to alert the public as much as we can."
Anyone with information regarding any type of scam has been urged to file a report with the County of L.A. Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, by calling (800) 593-8222.
For more information about crime prevention, click here.
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