FBI warns of virtual kidnapping scam after local woman victimized

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – There was a dual warning Thursday from a St. Louis County woman and the FBI after the woman fell for a virtual kidnapping scam.

She endured the scare of her life and lost thousands of dollars. The scam is growing fast, FBI agents said.

So far, we know of just one case here: a woman called at random, the kidnapper claiming to have her daughter, and she could hear her screaming over the phone.

“It really sounded like her screaming,” Nancy McGowan said.

Her 21-year-old college daughter no longer lived at home and had just been on a trip with friends.

McGowan found herself quickly following orders from a stranger on the phone.

“‘Do not hang up. We have your daughter. She’s duct taped in the back of this van,’” McGowan recalled him saying. “‘I’m going to kill her. If you hang up on me, she’s dead.’ I had not seen her or talked to her. To me, this could be plausible. What if that was your daughter? What if it was true? Could you live with that, forever, over some money?”

She stayed on the phone as he ordered her to drive to a specific Shop -N- Save store after first going to her bank and withdrawing $4,800.

McGowan was then ordered to drive to a specific Walgreens, trying wire the money from these places. Ultimately, she did so from a small “mom and pop” ethnic market, she said.

“Many people don’t realize you can text while you’re talking on the telephone,” said Zachary Lowe, the Acting FBI Special Agent in Charge in St. Louis. “These offenders are going to try to keep their victims on the telephone as long as possible because they know as soon as they can verify their loved one is okay, the scam is over.”

So if someone calls claiming to have kidnapped one of your loved ones, why not text that loved one, to make sure?

“I could have sent a text to any of my loved ones and found out this was false immediately. I did not know that and he kept threatening me,” McGowan said.

Ultimately, a text from a family member unraveled the scam, she said, but she'd already sent the money. This happened in August. McGowan felt embarrassed, but felt strongly about sharing her story to hopefully keep someone else from falling prey.

“Learn how to use your technology. Your children put those things in your hands and you really don’t know how to use them,” she said.

The FBI is investigating. There's been no arrest.

These scams typically originate in Mexico, agents said.

Suspects have now started "cold-calling" random numbers, trolling for victims.

One case turned up 80 victims in California, Idaho, Texas, and Minnesota.