PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - FBI Pittsburgh is alerting residents about a hoax kidnapping scam targeting Western Pennsylvanians who have family members traveling near the southwest border.
When you answer a phone call, you would probably never expect to hear a stranger telling you a terrifying story about your loved one's safety being at risk.
"They were claiming that they had family members that had been kidnapped in Mexico and they were demanding ransom with the threat of either killing or injuring the family member," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Timothy Wolford.
He said they learned last week that 450 of these hoax kidnapping calls were made by someone in Mexico to people who have the area code 724. The scammers apparently look for families to target on social media.
"They were scanning social media and looking for people who were traveling in the southwest region of the country, near the border, and then they were doing research to find who some of those family members were, their contact information," Wolford said.
Wolford told KDKA the criminals usually request a few thousand dollars.
He said if you receive a call like this, you should remain calm and resist pressure to act quickly and get as much information as possible, including the caller's phone number. Then you should hang up and call the family member they claimed was kidnapped before reporting the call to local police or the FBI.
"The first thing you want to do is try to contact that person they are claiming they have. A large percentage of these can be resolved just by contacting the individual and them confirming they are in a safe place. Second thing I would do is contact local law enforcement before you send any money because there is oftentimes things we can do to prove whether or not it's a hoax case before you send money," said Wolford.
He said victims don't have to stay on the line with the scammer.
"I don't think they need to stay on the phone with this individual. Most of them will call back and they will keep calling back until they think they can get money from the person so once that call is received and the threat has been made, if you can hang up the phone and then go ahead and try to contact that individual to make sure they are okay and then contact local law enforcement, that would be the steps I suggest," he said.
FBI Pittsburgh is reminding residents to never wire money because of a request made over the phone or in an email.
They warn that these hoax kidnapping scammers are convincing, which can be traumatic for the victims.
"They're playing on people's emotions and their fears. Anytime you get a call from someone that's saying they are going to kill a family member, that's going to shake you up a little bit but recognize these are becoming more common, so don't panic and jump to the assumption that the call is true," Wolford said.
They are also asking the public to alert family members about this scam, especially older loved ones.
Anyone who has gotten one of these calls, even if they haven't given the scammers money, is asked to file a complaint here or by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI.
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