Park City family members victimized in kidnapping hoax | ParkRecord.com

Park City family members victimized in kidnapping hoax

Nan Chalat Noaker

Park Record

The reunion between a 15-year-old boy and his parents was extremely emotional, even though the kidnapping was a hoax.

According to Sergeant Andrew Leatham of the Park City Police Department, who was there when the boy returned home, "It was very emotional … the family went through the whole roller coaster believing the child had been kidnapped."

Police say the incident, which took place on Aug. 12, was an elaborate scam that targets immigrants who may be reluctant to go to law enforcement for help.

The incident had all the hallmarks of a "virtual kidnapping," an extortion scheme that, Leatham says, is spreading across the country.

In this case, a family had traveled from their home in Mexico to visit family members in Park City. The boy was babysitting while the parents were out when he received a phone call threatening that a family member would be harmed unless he wired money to them. He was also told to leave the home, turn off his phone and hide in a nearby park.

At the same time, Leatham said, the perpetrators told the parents that their son had been kidnapped and they would have to pay hefty ransom for his safe return.

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"The silver lining in this is that family members who live here told them to call the police. They said, 'The police here are not like police in Mexico, you can call them. They will help. That was huge," he said.

With help from Summit and Wasatch county deputies and Utah Highway Patrol personnel, the police were able locate the parents and notify them that their son had returned to the house safely.

Unfortunately, by then both the teen and the parents had wired money to the 'kidnappers.'

"The boy sent money that he had been saving and the father sent money too. At first they asked for a lot. But the father said he didn't have that much and the ransom came down substantially. Still it was in the hundreds," Leatham said, adding "The caller goes to great lengths to convince family members, they go through all the emotions as if it had been a real abduction."

Leatham believes this is the first incident of its kind in Utah, adding the PCPD has been working with the FBI to find the culprits, who they believe to be in Mexico.

"They prey on people who are afraid of the police," Leatham said.

According to a PCPD press release, "Agents from the FBI indicated this is a common trend where recent immigrants are being targeted for extortion." The release includes a list, provided by the FBI, of ways to identify a potential virtual kidnapping and directs possible victims to call local law enforcement or the FBI if they believe they have been targeted in this way.

How to identify a potential virtual kidnapping:

  • Multiple successive phone calls from the perpetrators
  • Incoming calls made from an outside area code
  • Callers go to great length to keep victims on the phone
  • Callers try to prevent family members from contacting the “Kidnapped”
  • Demands for ransom money to be paid via wire transfer