Amy Nienhaus got a phone call Sunday from a stranger threatening to shoot her son in the head if she didn't pay him $10,000.
At the same time, a stranger was on the phone with her 15-year-old son, claiming his mother and brothers had been injured in an automobile accident – a call that also turned into a similar ransom demand.
"It was very disturbing. I'm just glad we are all safe," Nienhaus of the Town of Tonawanda told The Buffalo News.
Nienhaus and her son, who she asked not to be named, were victims of a virtual kidnapping – a frightening scam where an individual claims to have kidnapped a family member and then demands a ransom, or says a family member was injured in an accident and they won't let a family member go to the hospital until the damages are paid.
Victims' phone numbers appear to be called at random, according to the FBI, which has investigated these kinds of scams across the nation.
Nienhaus reported the incident to the Town of Tonawanda Police on Sunday and she turned to Facebook to warn others of her ordeal om Tuesday.
Tonawanda Police Capt. Joseph F. Carosi confirmed the report and said one call to the Nienhaus family was from a number in Puerto Rico and another from a number in Melbourne, Fla.
"These different phone scams go by different names and by different schemes, but they all have the same bottom line – trying to talk people into sending them money under false pretenses," said Carosi. "Generally the follow-up on these is difficult. We just hope that the public is informed and they don't fall for it. Or don't answer if you don't recognize the number." He urged people to report such crimes to the police.
Nienhaus said Tonawanda Police told her they had not received a phone scam complaint this violent in nature before.
She said she dropped her son off at a school open house on Sunday and returned home. Shortly thereafter, she got a call from a number she had never seen before. She said she declined the call, but it rang four more times and she decided to pick it up, thinking it might be her son using someone else's phone.
The person on the phone knew her name and knew her son's name and claimed her son had been in a car accident with some friends. Nienhaus said she suspected a scam right away and swore at the caller and told him she would call police if he called back. After she hung up, the man called back and said, "Listen, if you (expletive) hang up again – I've got (your son) and will shoot him in the head."
Nienhaus immediately hung up and tried to call her son, but he did not answer his phone. The caller continued to call her back, but she declined his calls.
"My son wasn't with me so I needed to get my eyes on him," Nienhaus told The News. She said she still guessed it was a scam, but had a sliver of doubt.
She found her son at the school. He was on his cellphone. He ran to her, saying, "Mom, Mom. You are ok?," Nienhaus wrote on Facebook.
Apparently the scammer had called her son, claiming that Nienhaus and two of his siblings were in an accident in a silver van. They said they were trying to verify information and asked for his mom's name and phone number. Then they told him not to hang up because they had a gun to his mother's head and would shoot her. The caller demanded $10,000 to get her back.
"They gave him enough doubt that he thought this could be a scam, but he had the same feeling I had," said Nienhaus. "He told them, 'I don't have $10,000, I'm just a kid, I don't know how to get $10,000.' The caller said, 'Well you better figure it out.' "
She said her son heard her calling his name at the school, told the stranger on the phone, "sorry guys," and hung up.
Carosi said Town of Tonawanda residents report two to three phone scam attempts a week to his department, but this was the first he had heard of a virtual kidnapping.
"If anyone suspects a kidnapping they should contact the police and let them follow up with the caller," added Carosi.
The FBI warns that in such cases scammers often tell their victims to stay on the phone until they wire money, often to a third party in Puerto Rico. The FBI notes that most schemes use various techniques to instill a sense of fear, panic and urgency in an effort to rush the victim into making a very hasty decision.
Nienhaus was reluctant to give out her story, but she said she wants other parents and their kids to be aware of all the scams out there.
"It really does happen to real people. It really hits home and it is real," said Nienhaus.