One day, Nancy McGowan answered her cell phone—and suddenly found herself living every parents worst nightmare.
McGowan, from St. Louis County, Missouri, has a 21-year-old daughter in college. The girl no longer lived at home, and back in August took a trip with some friends. Her mother didn’t know exactly where she was at that moment, but assumed she was safe.
But then, suddenly McGowan received a call from an unknown number. She answered it—and heard a horrible sound:
A woman screaming.
Another voice came on the line—and made it clear whose screaming she had just heard.
“Do not hang up,” she recalled the voice telling her, according to FOX 2.
“We have your daughter. She’s duct-taped in the back of this van.”
Suddenly, the kidnapper was in control, forcing McGowan to stay on the phone and listen to his demands.
“I’m going to kill her,” he continued. “If you hang up on me, she’s dead.”
She then heard a sound that sent a chill down her spine:
“They played a recording that sounded identical to something she would normally say to me,” she recalled to KMOV.
“To say I was scared is an understatement.”
McGowan panicked. With that kind of threat, she didn’t have any time to question the situation or come up with another plan.
“I had not seen her or talked to [my daughter],” McGowan explained to FOX 2. “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?”
The kidnapper was demanding $4,800, and she agreed to get it to him on his exact terms.
She stayed on the line with the kidnapper as she withdrew the money from her bank, and tried to find a store that would let her wire the money.
Finally, she sent the $4,800 to several people in Mexico, as per the instructions. It was a significant financial loss, but McGown sent the cash without thinking, assuming it would bring her daughter home safe.
But then, she found out what was really happening.
She got a text from her son, and he eventually convinced her to get off the phone with the unknown caller.
Her daughter was safe. There was never any kidnapper.
The entire thing was an elaborate scam—one that had successfully robbed McGowan of nearly $5,000.
McGowan was incredibly embarrassed by the whole ordeal—but she’s not alone. These types of sick extortion schemes have been investigated by the FBI for years. They typically originate from Mexico, and the scam has spread throughout the US as attackers have begun randomly cold-calling potential victims.
The scams work exactly like they did here: by preying on your worst fears and scaring you into doing what they say.
“They’re using the victims, the trauma they’re putting the victim through to get them to get them to send the money immediately, not think about what they’re doing,” St. Louis FBI agent Zachary Lowe told KSDK.
The scammers also always count on the victim staying on the line.
“These offenders are going to try to keep their victims on the telephone as long as possible,” Lowe told FOX 2.
“They know as soon as they can verify their loved one is okay, the scam is over.”
In this regard, the best solution if you fall victim to a call like this is to text the alleged kidnapping victim while you’re on the line. Chances are they will say they’re fine, and you’ll know it’s a scam.
Unfortunately, it’s too late for McGowan. There have been no arrests in the scam, and the money she wired is difficult to trace and almost definitely gone for good.
“Most victims will lose that money,” Lowe explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
But the best she can do is share her story with the world, hoping that people will recognize the warning signs and know how to avoid being a victim.
“I did lose my money, and I am embarrassed, but I would like people to know first of all don’t answer phones you don’t know who it is,” she told KDSK.
She also stresses the importance of knowing what you can do with your phone—it might just save you from losing thousands of dollars.
“Learn how to use your technology,” she told FOX 2. “Your children put those things in your hands, and you really don’t know how to use them.”