NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — Gail’s phone rang. It showed up as a call from her adult daughter.
“I heard a muffled ‘mom’ and then silent crying,” Gail recalled. “I kept saying to her, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?'”
In an instant, confusion turned into terror for the Newport mom. Target 12 agreed to use only her first name for this report.
“All of a sudden, I heard a man’s voice,” Gail said. “He said, ‘You need to listen to me very carefully and do exactly what I say.'”
The caller barked a series of instructions. Go honk your car horn so I know you’re listening. Go to the bank and withdraw money. Don’t hang up.
“He said, ‘You get off this phone and I’m going to blow her brains out.'”
Gail was hysterical. Her cell phone was the only way she could reach people who could help her scrape together the money the caller demanded, so she hung up.
“I tried calling back three or four times, and at this point, I thought I put a bullet in my kid’s head,” she said.
Gail raced to the police department. On her way, she tried calling her daughter’s phone one more time.
“This time she picked up and she said, ‘Hi!'” Gail said. “I didn’t know if I was crying because I was happy or sad, but I’m like, ‘Where are you?'”
“I was so confused at this point because I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t,” she said.
Gail slowly realized the kidnapping story was an elaborate scam. Her daughter was safe, and the young woman’s phone was secure. A scammer had simply spoofed the number to try and trick Gail into handing over ransom money, in what the FBI calls a “virtual kidnapping.”
According to the FBI, there are no national statistics on how often this crime is happening, but the agency believes a significant number of virtual kidnappings for ransom are going unreported.
Virtual kidnappers typically demand between $1,000 and $2,000, according to the FBI.
The FBI’s advice if you receive a call from someone demanding ransom:
In most cases, the best course of action is to hang up the phone and report it to law enforcement.
If you do engage the caller, don’t call out your loved one’s name.
Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to your family member directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
Ask questions only the alleged kidnapping victim would know, such as the name of a pet. Avoid sharing information about yourself or your family.
Listen carefully to the voice of the alleged victim if he or she speaks.
Attempt to contact the alleged victim via phone, text, or social media, and request that he or she call back from their cell phone.
To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and say you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to get things moving.
Don’t agree to pay a ransom, by wire or in person. Delivering money in person can be dangerous.
“The odds of this being a real kidnapping are really, really low,” R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha told Target 12. “Even in those circumstances, what you want to do is call police.”
Though the signs are there, the virtual kidnappers are hard to trace.
“Many times people who are doing them aren’t even in the U.S., so law enforcement’s ability to identify these people and bring them to justice is somewhat limited,” Neronha said. “The real mission is to make people aware of it.”
That’s exactly why Gail decided to share her story.
“It is the most terrifying thing to go through as a parent, and if I can help anybody spare this emotion, then I did my job,” she said.
Fighting illegal robocalls
Federal lawmakers are considering legislation that would fight illegal spoofing and robocalls.
The bill — called the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence, or TRACED, Act — is supported by attorneys general from all 50 states and four U.S. territories.
It would increase civil penalties for illegal robocalls, give regulators up to three years to catch scammers and take enforcement action, and require voice service providers to authenticate incoming calls.
“We think that would be a big help in all of the scams that are going on,” Neronha said. “Basically that screenshot would say, ‘Possible scam call,’ ‘Possible scam,’ so when you answer your cell phone, the number isn’t up there. It says ‘Possible scam.’ We think that’s really good technology.”
Rhode Island U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is among more than a dozen bipartisan co-sponsors of the bill.
“In addition to being a nuisance, unwanted robocalls can lead to data theft and financial fraud,”Whitehouse said. “I’m pleased to join my colleagues in proposing solutions to this growing problem.”
David Weissman, a spokesperson for Verizon, said in a statement the company also supports the TRACED Act.
“Few robocallers get charged with illegal spoofing because the Truth in Caller ID Act defines ‘spoofing’ narrowly,” Weissman said. “The government currently must prove the caller intended to defraud, cause harm, or illegally obtain something of value. Verizon supports a simple rule that would make it illegal for any caller to use any phone number that it is not authorized to use.”
ACA International, a group representing the credit and collection industry, said it has not taken an official position on the TRACED Act, but said it is asking lawmakers to amend the proposed law.
“[We] have urged the senators to make distinctions between illegal actors and legitimate callers, and to provide protections for legal informational calls that contain important information consumers need,” ACA International’s Leah Dempsey told Target 12 in a statement.
Beyond the TRACED Act
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is also working on the issue of illegal robocalls and scam calls. In an email to Target 12, the agency said it is its top consumer protection priority.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is pushing the telecommunications industry to adopt call authentication systems.
Verizon is introducing free spam blocking technology for its customers, and AT&T and Comcast recently announced they have successfully conducted caller verification tests.
For its voice customers, Cox partnered with Nomorobo to provide free robocall blocking. A spokesperson said Cox is also looking into other options to improve customer service related to illegal spoofing.
Consumers can report unwanted robocalls and text messages to the Federal Trade Commission.