LAGUNA BEACH (CBSLA) – Laguna Beach police issued a warning over the weekend about what they are calling a “virtual kidnapping” scam in which callers falsely claimed they had kidnapped a family member and were demanding thousands of dollars in ransom money.

Two Laguna Beach residents were targeted by the scam within a 24-hour period earlier this month, police explained in an email to CBS2. In one case, the victim had already wired $5,000 to the scammers before discovering he had been played.

Those two scamming attempts occurred on March 7 and March 8.

In the first incident, the victim told police he received a cell phone call from a man claiming that he had kidnapped the victim’s daughter and would kill her unless he received $5,000, police said. The suspect ordered the father to remain on the phone with him. The father also heard a woman’s screams in the background during the call.

The victim withdrew $5,000 from his bank and was ordered to send the money to a Mexican account via several wire transfer locations outside Laguna Beach. The victim had just finished transferring all the cash when he received a call from his daughter, who was safe and sound in Laguna Beach and had not been kidnapped, police disclosed.

In a second almost identical incident the following day, the victim had withdrawn cash, per the scammer’s demands, but officers intervened before he went through with wiring it. In that case, the victim’s daughter was a college student in Chicago.

According to the FBI, virtual kidnapping scammers are often able to glean information about a victim’s background through social media.

“It was a nightmare from the very beginning, hearing my daughter’s voice, screaming for help,” said mom Andrea, who was targeted in a similar scam.

Police advise anyone who gets such a call to be wary. You should be suspicious if the call does not come from the alleged kidnapping victim’s phone and if the caller tries to prevent you from hanging up and contacting the victim. The caller will tend to demand a ransom be wired to Mexico.

“The success of a virtual kidnapping scheme depends on speed and fear,” police said in a news release. “Criminals know they have a limited amount of time before the victim catches onto the scam or law enforcement gets involved.”

Police have circulated information regarding the scam to all schools in Laguna Beach.

Here are more tips from Laguna Beach police:

— In most cases, the best course of action is to hang up the phone.
— If you don’t want to risk ending the call, drive to the nearest police station.
— Try to remain calm and slow the situation down.
— Do not share any information about your family during the call and don’t use the alleged victim’s name.
— If you hear the victim’s voice or screaming in the background, try to ascertain if it really is your child.
— Attempt to contact the ‘kidnapped’ victim via phone, text, messaging app or social media to see where they are and if they are safe.
— Ask to speak to the victim.
— Ask questions that only the victim would know.
— Ask the caller to call back using the victim’s phone.
— Try to buy time by repeating the caller’s demands and telling the caller you need to write things down or need time to complete the transaction.
— Don’t challenge or argue with the caller.

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