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Virtual kidnapping scheme leaves Houston mother worried about son's safety

HOUSTON – The FBI is warning Americans to beware of “virtual kidnapping,” a decades-old extortion scheme becoming increasingly common and sophisticated.

A Houston woman was a recent target. She asked KPRC not to use her last name.

On Monday, "Jenn" was at work when she answered a call from a Houston area code.

“The first thing I hear is someone crying, saying ‘Mom, please help me, they got me,’ Jenn said. It sounded like her adult son.

“Then another man got on the phone and said, ‘Listen, this is what you’re going to do,’ Jenn said. “And he’s yelling at me, ‘Keep your phone to your ear, or your son is going to die.’”

Jenn told her boss she had a family emergency and stepped out of the office. The apparent kidnapper demanded $5,000 in exchange for her son.

“The scammers attempt to keep victims on the phone so they can’t verify their loved ones’ whereabouts or contact law enforcement,” the FBI said in a news release. “The callers are always in a hurry, and the ransom demand is usually a wire payment.”

Jenn rushed to the nearest Chase bank and emptied her checking account, but also alerted her husband using a second phone.

“I could hear them doing something to this person who I thought was my son,” Jenn said. “In the background, they’re hurting him.”

Just before Jenn wired the money, her son texted: “Don’t listen to anybody. I’m safe. Safe. Safe. At work. Don’t go anywhere. I’m safe.”

“R u OK?” Jenn asked. “Yes,” her son texted, along with a photo as proof.

“I love you so much,” Jenn wrote back. “I love you more,” her son responded.

“Many victims do not report the crime,” the FBI said. “Either because they are embarrassed, afraid or because they don’t consider the financial loss to be significant.”

The phone numbers used in the scheme are usually untraceable. It is nearly impossible to track down the criminal.

Last July, Yanette Rodriguez Acosta, a 34-year-old Houston woman, became the first person ever to receive a “virtual kidnapping” indictment.

Prosecutors said Acosta helped extort $28,000 combined from two victims in the Houston area.

“Both victims were allegedly told their daughters had been kidnapped because they had witnessed a crime and that their fingers would be cut off if the parents did not comply with demands,” the Department of Justice’s Southern District of Texas said in a release.

The FBI offers a handful of tips if you suspect you are the target of a virtual kidnapping scheme, click here to see them.

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