Chapel Hill warns of 'virtual hostage' scam

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Friday, December 22, 2017
Virtual kidnapping scam drives victims to point of panic
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The virtual kidnapping scam has made its way to Chapel Hill.

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina (WTVD) -- The Town of Chapel Hill is now warning people about the so-called "virtual kidnapping" scam that's sweeping the Triangle.

ABC11 has been contacted by two victims in the Orange County town who wired thousands of dollars to a caller only to later find out their loved one was safe all the time.

Now Chapel Hill Police have released a 911 call recently made from a bank in the college town.

Warning: Contains some graphic language

An employee of SunTrust bank called to say a man and his wife were there withdrawing $2,000.

He said the man was on the phone with someone who said he was holding the couple's daughter who was in college out of state.

The banker then handed the phone to the mother.

"My daughter's in Charleston. I don't know where these people are. They want the money, they want us to take it to CVS to somehow wire transfer to some place," the unidentified woman told the 911 dispatcher.

The banker told the dispatcher the couple was withdrawing $2,000.

READ MORE: Virtual kidnapping scam targets Raleigh dad for $5,100

The caller was demanding the couple take the cash to a nearby CVS drugstore and wire the money to him and not hang up or he would hurt or kill their daughter.

Her mother was obviously scared and confused asking the dispatcher, "Can you call Charleston or something?"

The dispatcher responded, "The police are going to be there."

Almost in tears, the mother responded: "I don't know what's happening."

But she made it pretty clear she knew the call could be a prank saying, "I don't need you necessarily here unless you can do something for me to save my daughter. I don't want to take a chance on not wiring the money if my daughter is really in danger."

The dispatcher couldn't convince the couple to stay at the bank and an officer ended up going to the CVS.

In the meantime, police were able to confirm the daughter was OK.

Although the money had already been wired, it hadn't been picked up and the transaction was canceled.

Chapel Hill police captain Josh Mecimore says while this scam is similar to others it ramps up emotions.

"In terms of the threat of harm to a person this is a very different scam," Mecimore told ABC11.

He said it's easy to tell people to just hang up on most scammers but with this one it's different.

"There's always this small chance that the person might have been kidnapped. So it's a fine line you have to walk in figuring out is it a scam or is it not. And so I think it's hard for us to make recommendations for what to do," Mecimore said.

He noted that with a smartphone you can put the caller on speaker and still use a texting app to send a message to the loved one.

If you can't reach them you can try texting another friend of family member for help.

But ultimately it's important to find someone else with a phone and get police involved.