LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — It's an alarming phone call that could cost you thousands.
More and more people are falling for "virtual kidnapping" scams — where a person calls saying a family member has been kidnapped, then tries to get you to pay ransom. It may appear as a normal call from your loved one, but when you answer it, an unknown person is asking for money to free your family member.
One family in Las Vegas tells 13 Action News how they nearly fell victim to such a scam.
Rachel Allen says she was in the midst of a normal day teaching at UNLV when, out of nowhere, she received an urgent message: "Your mom thinks that you have been kidnapped."
Her mother's coworkers called to let her know her mom received a call from a stranger, telling her that her daughter had been kidnapped.
Allen says it was one of the most terrifying moments of her mother's life.
"She said she just kept hearing this girl screaming, like 'Mom, help me! Mom, help me!'" Allen said.
Allen says her mother heard a voice that sounded just like her daughter's while the scammers demanded thousands of dollars in ransom.
"She became very distraught, and would do anything to get me back," Allen said.
The number came from a 702 area code. Allen says her mother was just about to meet up with the scammer to give them the money when Allen called her to let her know she was safe.
"I couldn't imagine, if it was a situation where I lived in a different state, and how they would have reacted in getting in contact with me," she said.
What happened to Allen's mother could happen to anyone, says Aaron Rouse, former special agent in charge of the FBI's Las Vegas field office.
"These people are using a scam, essentially because you've posted on social media that you're out there, you're traveling, you're in another country," Rouse said.
If you plan on traveling, don't tell people in advance, Rouse advised. You can also provide your loved ones with a pass-phrase or code word in case of emergencies, to verify it's you.
And, he says, never provide financial information over the phone.
"They're contacting you from a phone, other than your loved one's phone, that they can't describe basic things about you or your loved one, like a description," Rouse said.
To help determine whether a call is a scam, Rouse said you should ask to speak to your loved one directly. If they say no, you should ask them to describe your loved one in detail. While you're asking those questions, try to contact the family member through text or social media.
It's a lesson Allen and her family learned the hard way.
"What if this had been a real situation?" she said. "I can't imagine being in her shoes and the distress she felt."