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Here’s how to protect yourself against virtual scams

Many scam artists are going virtual to find new targets, but there are steps you can take to stay safe and prevent becoming a victim.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department in recent months has seen an uptick in reports of various scams, from virtual kidnappings to faux pet purchases, in an effort to extort money unsuspecting victims.

On March 5, a San Clemente deputy was dispatched at approximately 2:15 p.m. to a bank in the 300 block of El Camino Real in response to a potential kidnapping.

When the deputy arrived, a 63-year-old man told him he received a phone call from a suspect claiming to be with the man’s 25-year-old daughter in Mexico. The caller said they were in danger, that a friend in their group had been shot, and demanded $2,000 for medical bills, paid electronically and not using a bank transfer.

The victim asked to speak to his daughter before he sent the money, but the suspect would not comply. The victim reported hearing what sounded like his daughter’s voice screaming in the background.

When the victim arrived at the bank, an employee helped by calling the Sheriff’s Department. The victim again asked to speak to his daughter, but the suspect wouldn’t comply. The victim then hung up the phone and called his daughter. She was safe at school in Oceanside.

This type of scam, commonly known as virtual kidnapping, is making the rounds in several Orange County cities. However, it’s not the only clever way crooks are trying to extort residents.

On March 20, a Mission Viejo resident was swindled out of $950 after attempting to purchase a bulldog that was advertised for sale online. The suspect asked for the payment in Amazon and Google Play gift cards. Once the suspect received the gift card code over a messaging app, the suspect then cut off communication and never delivered the dog.

Also on March 20, a Mission Viejo woman was contacted through an online dating app by a man who asked the woman to exchange $10,000 in checks for the same amount in Best Buy and Kohl’s gift cards. The woman purchased the gift cards and made the exchange only to later realize the checks were fraudulent.

These are just some examples of how criminals are getting creative. Their tactics are convincing and unfortunately are proving to be effective. However, there are things you can do to protect yourself:

  • If you receive a call that indicates a potential kidnapping 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 a deputy who will respond.  
  • If you are asked to pay for anything using gift cards – a dog, a purse, an alleged ransom – that’s 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. Sometimes they will know basic information about your loved one and use that information in an attempt to prove the validity of their requests.  
  • If the caller incites fear, stresses the emergent nature of the request or attempts to verbally coerce you, your suspicions should be raised and law enforcement should be contacted.
  • Phone a friend (aka the Sheriff’s Department). If ever you receive one of these calls and are unsure about what to do next, please call the Sheriff’s Department at 714-647-7000 (Press 1, then 9). We are always happy to assist!
  • Spread the word. When you hear about a new scam making the rounds, talk about it with friends and family. Education and awareness is key in preventing virtual fraud.