NEW YORK – Imagine the horror of having a loved one kidnapped. Federal authorities say scammers are counting on that anguish to get unsuspecting people to pay up.
The scheme is very well thought out. The victims are chosen at random but the FBI says the callers get information from one family member and use it against another to make it sound authentic.
It happened to one family in Sands Point, Long Island. Their story is downright frightening.
“We have your son” — those are the words that Charles Ernst says he will never forget. Words he heard over the phone from a total stranger. It all began on June 15.
Ernst’s 17-year-old son Daniel got a phone call from a man who told him that one of his family members had been in an accident with the man on the phone’s brother. He said his brother was holding that family member hostage for damages to his vehicle.
“My son panicked and said ‘You need to call my dad on his cell phone’ and gave him my name and number,” Ernst said. “Now while my son was on the call with these people they had asked him what his name was and he had given him his name, and said ‘My name is Daniel’.”
A few minutes later, Ernst gets a call from the same people who had called his son Daniel earlier. He got the same story. Only this time, they told Ernst his son, Daniel, was the one being held for ransom. The man on the phone told Ernst that his brother was dangerous and was wanted for two murders. In shock, Ernst asked for proof that his son had been kidnapped.
“He then played a recording that he had previously recorded while on the phone with my son and said ‘My name is Daniel,'” Ernst said. “And I had heard my son’s voice on this call and now he’s got me captive because I think he has my son.”
The man on the phone told Ernst his son had been pistol-whipped during the kidnapping and needed medical attention. He demanded Ernst wire them $2,000 to cover the damage to the vehicle.
“The first thing he told me was do not try and call my son and if I tried to call my son they would kill him,” Ernst said. “Do not take any calls from anybody else and do not call the police. If I did they would kill him as well.”
Ernst began wiring the money but before he could finish his assistant passed him a note letting him know that she had just gotten off the phone with police, that his son was okay and that the entire thing — the crash and the kidnapping — was bogus.
“The officer asked me to keep them on the line because they had intercepted my cell phone and they were trying to get a tracking on the other end,” Ernst said.
Ernst recorded a portion of that phone call. He told the phony kidnappers he knew his son was okay. But they still stuck to their story.
“Your brother was going to kill him why would he let him go?” Ernst asks on the recording.
“Because you paid for the first part and you were going to pay for the second part. So I told my brother, ‘Please let him go’ and he let him go,” the man on the phone said, according to the recording.
Local police are on this case as well and they say the wiretap didn’t trace the call.
However, Ernst told me the callers gave him a couple of names, Anthony and Hilda Perdogo. He was told to wire the money to a “Hilda Perdogo” in Puerto Rico.
The FBI says that is how the scheme works. Typically the callers are Hispanic men and they tell the victims to wire the money to Puerto Rico. They also say if you get a phone call from someone like this, ask them for a physical description of your loved one.
Ernst says he wishes he had done that. But again, they recorded his son’s voice and that was enough for him.