JOHNSON COUNTY, Ind. — A new scam is making rounds, targeting Hoosiers, and cashing in on their emotions.
It’s called the “Hostage Scam”, and a Johnson County woman is explaining how it works so it doesn’t happen to you.
On the condition we don’t use her name or show her face, she told FOX59 how she was scammed out of $1500.
It started with a phone call in the middle of the night, around 1:30 a.m. on October 25th. Her phone, she says, was set on “do not disturb” with only certain calls, like ones from family, allowed to come through.
So when she saw the call from “Mom & Dad” just before 2 that morning, she didn’t hesitate to answer.
“I hear a woman screaming and sobbing, crying,” she said, “and I, of course, said ‘Oh my gosh! What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ and I jump up out of bed.”
“What I hear then is a man that uses my name and says ‘I have your mom. I have a gun held to her head. I’m not afraid to die. I’ll shoot her and I’ll shoot myself if you call the police,’” she added.
It was the start of a terrifying phone call that would last for 32 minutes. The caller, who she says was a man with a southern accent, told her he needed money “to get home”, and if she just did what he asked, no one would get hurt.
“Not one moment of it did I think that it was a scam. It was so believable,” she said.
The caller demanded payments through a series of money transfer apps, like Apple Pay and PayPal. When she tried, she said her bank blocked the transactions due to fraudulent activity.
However, she says money did go through on Venmo. As instructed, she marked the payments as private and labeled them “Rent” as the reason.
“They did get $1500 through Venmo, and I did find out that your payments aren’t secure when you send through Venmo,” she said. “There’s really no way to get that money back because it’s immediately available to someone on the other end.”
When the call ended and the man abruptly hung up, she says she immediately called her mom herself.
“She answered the phone and I was screaming ‘Are you ok?! Are you ok?!’ And she’s like ‘Yes’,” said the woman. “I thought at first that she was just trying to stay calm because the guy had just left, and she goes ‘What’s wrong with you? Are you ok?’ And then that was when I realized that I had just been scammed.”
The woman says the caller was able to imitate her parents phone number by spoofing it, which is how it showed up as “Mom & Dad” on her caller ID.
The woman says the call was convincing, especially with the man’s threatening nature and the other woman’s background screams throughout the entire ordeal.
“It was terrifying,” she said. “Being woken up from a sound sleep, and seeing that it’s your mom and dad’s phone number, of course you’re going to answer it. Why would there be any reason to believe that it wasn’t them?”
“I consider myself to be a pretty intelligent individual and aware of scams,” she said. “For them to be able to get me in that situation, I mean, I was shocked. I was absolutely shocked, and if they can get me, then how many other people can they get?”
While she may be out of $1500, she says she’s thankful her mom is okay. However, the emotional toll is still there.
“It got me because it was in line with an armed robbery. They basically pretended that they had my mom held hostage, so they instilled fear in me in order to get what they wanted, and it was just a terrifying situation and I want everyone to be aware that this is happening,” she said.
Tim Maniscalo, with the Better Business Bureau Serving Central Indiana, says these scams work because they prey on your emotions, especially in a panicked state.
“They want to make you think that your loved one is in immediate danger, and that something is going to happen to them if you don’t act absolutely right at that moment,” he said. “They’re going to tend to call you at night, like when you’re asleep. You know, you kind of wake up and all of a sudden you don’t have all your faculties together. So that’s another red flag you want to watch out for.”
While the woman says she’s unsure how the caller knew her name or information about her family, the BBB says scammers pull from different sources to put together a convincing story.
“Just be careful and understand what people are sharing on social media,” Maniscalo said. “Because they’re going to tell you some facts, and some things that are very personal, that only the people that know that person really are aware of.”
“If you want to learn about somebody’s family background, you can also go to places like ancestry.com,” he added. “They can tell you a lot about relatives, particularly relatives that have passed away, and kind of put together a story.”
If this happens to you, experts recommend reporting it on the BBB Scam Tracker and calling police, which is exactly what the Johnson County woman did.
We reached out to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office to get an update on her case. They shared it’s an active investigation that is moving forward. Due to the apps used in the scam, police say they are following up on some items to hopefully identify someone.