‘We have your daughter and we’re holding her’: Extortion scheme preys on parents worst fears

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The phone rings and the terror begins: It’s a call Hanover resident Michael Key and his wife will never forget.  

“He said, ‘well we have your daughter here, and we’re holding her,’” Key recalled of the phone call that came into his wife’s cell phone from a strange number the couple didn’t recognize. “I looked at the telephone number and it had like 16 digits.” 

At first, they didn’t pick up, but it kept ringing, so his wife finally answered.

“Her voice sounded agitated, and she was pacing back and forth,” Key remembers. He knew quickly something was wrong. “She put the phone to her chest and said, ‘Terry’s being held hostage, and they want money.'”  

Terry is Key’s daughter. Looking back, the couple realizes the man never actually said their daughter’s name. Still, Key’s wife was panicked. Largely because on the other end of the line was a mixture of chaos and confusion.

“There’s an accomplice in the background going, ‘mom, mom,'” Key explained.

The caller demanded they don’t hang up, but instead go to Walmart and wire money fast.

“She can still not even talk about it to this day,” Key said.Yet he was suspicious since the caller refused to talk to him. So, with his wife on the line, Key picks up the landline and dials 911 while at the same time using his cell phone to call his daughter.  

“I just asked my daughter, where are you at?’ She said, ‘I am home.’ I asked, ‘are you ok?’ She said, ‘I’m fine what’s going on?’ And I said, ‘I will call you back later.'”

Key then told his wife the frightening and frantic call was nothing more than a scam.

“She got extremely emotional and I told her everything is OK, our daughter is fine,” he said.

One hundred miles north in Loudoun County, Aaron Collins picks up the phone to what sounds like a hysterical call from his young daughter.

He says he heard, “Daddy help, they got me in the van and then a man gets on the phone.”

The man is straightforward about what would happen if he didn’t come up with $5,000 dollars: “The man says if you want to see Victoria again, do what we say or we’re going to kill her.”

Collins, however, was able to reach his daughter’s principal and confirm she was safe in school.

What Collins and Key experienced is called ‘virtual kidnapping.’ It’s an extortion scheme preying on your worst fears, and the FBI says it’s on the rise.​​​​​​​”They are driving off fear and speed,” says FBI Acting Assistant Special Agent Mark Knoll from the Richmond field office

“It is happening on a consistent basis in Virginia and throughout the United States.” — FBI Acting Assistant Special Agent Mark Knoll

8News’ sister station WPRI spoke with another victim in Rhode Island.

“All of a sudden I heard a voice, and he said, ‘you need to listen very carefully to me and do exactly what I say,” Gail said describing her call. 

In her case, the scammers were able to make the caller ID appear to be from her daughter.

“He said, ‘you get off this phone and I am going to blow her brains out,’” Gail said.

“They will identify a victim.  They troll. They will demand. Typically, it is reasonable amounts of money, not a lot, anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 dollars,” Knoll explained. “They want a wire, they want a quick pay.”

So, what do you do if get a call like this? 

  • Try to slow the situation down. Repeat the caller’s request, tell them you are writing down the demand or you will need time to get things moving.
  • You want to ask questions that only you and that victim will know.
  • Demand to speak to your loved one.
  • Attempt to call, text, or contact the alleged kidnap victim from another phone via social media. Request that the victim call back from his or her cell phone.
  • Do not send money
  • Call police or the FBI

Knoll also says it’s not a bad idea to have a ‘safe word’ that only you and your child know.

The FBI tells us the virtual kidnappers are often from out of the country and hard to trace.

As for Key, a deputy with the Hanover County Sheriff’s Office did come to the home in response to his 911 called. As a precaution, they helped him track down his other adult daughters just to confirm their safety.  

The officer confirmed the call was a virtual kidnapping extortion scam.  

“The Sheriff’s Department did a great job,” Key said. 

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