‘Virtual Scam’ Reports on the Rise in Orange County: Sheriff’s Department

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Officials warned residents Monday about a recent uptick in ‘virtual scams’ being reported in Orange County.

The scams ranged from fake kidnappings to fake pet sales, with the scammers usually targeting victims to extort money from them, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

In one case, a 63-year-old San Clemente man told police he received a call from a man claiming to be with his 25-year-old daughter in Mexico and that they were in danger. The suspect said a friend in their group had been shot, and said they needed $2,000 paid electronically and not using a bank transfer, the Sheriff’s Department said in a news release.

When the victim asked to speak to his daughter before sending the money, the suspect “would not comply,” according to authorities.

The man said he heard what sounded like his daughter’s voice screaming in the background and went to a bank where an employee called police, the Sheriff’s Department said.

The victim then hung up and called his daughter, who was safe at school in Oceanside, according to authorities.

Officials said this type of “virtual kidnapping scam” was making the rounds at different cities in the county. The Los Angeles Times reported on two different Laguna Beach families that were told one of their children had been kidnapped and would be killed unless they paid a ransom to the caller on March 7.

Laguna Beach Police told the Times that one of the parents sent the suspect thousands of dollars.

It is unclear if the same suspect or group of suspects were involved in the different incidents across the county.

Authorities described the recent scams as “creative” and said the scammers are often convincing.

“Sometimes they will know basic information about your loved one and use that information in an attempt to prove the validity of their requests,” the Sheriff’s Department said.

On Wednesday, a man contacted a Mission Viejo woman through an online dating app and asked her to exchange $10,000 in checks for the same amount in Best Buy and Kohl’s gift cards. The woman purchased the gift cards only to later realize the checks were fraudulent, the Sheriff’s Department said.

On the same day, also in Mission Viejo, a resident attempted to purchase a bulldog that was advertised online. The suspect asked for $950 sent in Amazon and Google Play gift cards. After receiving the gift cards, the suspect stopped replying and never delivered the dog, according to authorities.

The Sheriff’s Department offered residents some tips on how to protect themselves from falling victim to virtual scams:

  • If you get a call about a loved one potentially being kidnapped, and it doesn’t seem safe to hang up the phone, find the nearest person or drive to the Sheriff’s Department station to ask for help. You can write a note asking someone to contact authorities.
  • If you are asked to pay for anything using gift cards, that should be an automatic red flag.
  • If someone calls claiming to be a family member asking for money, hang up the phone and attempt to reach that family member. This scam, also called “the grandparent scam,” involves suspects posing as a loved one in trouble and in need of money in the form of gift cards.
  • If a caller incites fear and says it’s am emergency, or attempts to verbally coerce you, you should contact law enforcement.

Authorities did not provide information on the number of virtual scams reported recently in the county.

Residents who feel they may be victim of a scam can call the Sheriff’s Department at 714-647-7000.

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