Police warn fake kidnappings becoming a nationwide problem

NEW YORK -- Law enforcement is warning of a spread of a cruel scam: fake kidnapping. One family encountered this first-hand and explained how it unfolded to CBS News.

Larry Lutes got the phone call while he was at work. He said a man comes on the phone and says, “We got your daughter.”

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Larry Lutes

CBS Evening News

“She was screaming, ‘Dad -- they’re, they’re taking me in a van,’” Lutes said. “‘I don’t know what they’re going do. Help me!’”

His daughter’s kidnappers demanded $10,000.

“They just said, ‘Don’t talk to anybody. Get in your car and start driving right now,’” Lutes recalled. “He goes, ‘Or I’ll kill your daughter.’”

His 19-year-old daughter, Jenna Lee, had left for college just the night before.

Believing her life was on the line, Lutes went to the bank to get cash, then drove through the night to eight different locations, wiring the money to Mexico as he was directed.

Soon his wife Donna wondered why her husband hadn’t come home -- and the next day discovered the money was missing.

At that point he had taken $10,000 out of the bank and he was nowhere to be found.

“That’s right,” Donna said.

But that was just the start. Now, her phone rang -- this time the callers told Donna they’d kidnapped her husband.

“If I didn’t get them money … they were going put a bullet in his head,” Donna said.

Donna says it was just horrible and made her physically ill.

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Donna Lutes

CBS Evening News

Like her husband, Donna was also told to wire the cash from different locations. Finally her children contacted the police, who stopped her from wiring any more money with a startling revelation.

“It’s a scam,” Donna said. “I’m like, ‘No, it’s not’ … and they’re like, ‘It’s a scam.’”

The Lutes had been the victims of a fake kidnapping scheme. And they weren’t alone.

NYPD Detective Lt. John Rogan told CBS News that organized crime rings call victims at random, convincing them they’ve kidnapped their loved ones.

“This is a nationwide problem,” Rogan said.

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NYPD Detective Lt. John Rogan

CBS Evening News

“It’s effective because they’re playing on everyone’s good nature and wanting to get their family members back,” Rogan said.

Scammers don’t have to actually kidnap anybody, do they?

“They do not have to kidnap anybody,” Rogan said. “They sit at home and wait for the money to be wired to the locations that they desire.”

The Lutes were finally reunited -- 28 hours after Larry received the first phone call.

The family had a big hug and cry, but they’d lost $17,000.

What would they say to people who might think: Well, I would never fall for that?

“Well, you would, because it’s like a gamble,” Larry said. “You’re, gambling with somebody’s life.”

Donna said that you won’t jeopardize somebody you love over money.

“You just wouldn’t do that. Who’s going take that chance?” Donna asked.

New York City police said they believe that hundreds of these calls are made at random -- and they say victims have included people at the highest levels of Fortune 500 companies.

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Donna and Larry Lutes with their college-aged daughter.