Quick-thinking Family Foils Terrifying ‘Virtual Kidnapping’

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    Kasey Byrne was home in Orinda on a Saturday morning when she answered her cell phone from an anonymous caller. She heard “a girl, crying hysterically on the line.” Byrne reacted to the unintelligible crying, telling who she thought was her daughter, to “take a deep breath, calm down and tell me what’s going on.” Then, “a few seconds later, a man took the phone and started screaming threats and abuse at me,” she said. “He shouted, ‘I’m going to put a bullet in your daughter’s head if you don’t do exactly what I tell you.’”
    Byrnes’ 17-year-old daughter Eavan was due at a rural Castro Valley horse barn for a morning riding lesson when the phone rang. Two weeks prior, Eavan’s horse came down with colic, a potentially deadly equine condition, and she called her mom, crying uncontrollably. Byrne didn’t question the anonymous call as cell service is sporadic and riders often borrow phones to make calls. Her initial concern was about Eavan’s beloved horse.
    But what was taking place was a virtual kidnapping – a scam designed to make victims think their loved one has been kidnapped and making threats to obtain a ransom when in reality there has been no abduction.
    Virtual kidnapping is an extortion scheme which has been around for more than two decades. The level of sophistication has improved and now cell phone calls can be spoofed so the call appears to be from a loved one. Threats of harm are constant; often by screaming and shouting. The “loved one” never comes to the phone.
    Rapid-fire instructions are given. There is emphasis on immediacy. Demands for money are made, usually for an anonymous wire transfer of no more than $2,000 to Mexico. There is little time to think about anything other than the safe return of who is “kidnapped.”
    “It didn’t feel like a scam,” said Byrne. “It felt like an assault. It was an attack that threw me into a panic and made it nearly impossible to think or reason.”
    The caller’s initial threat “was the least violent, least explicit and least awful thing he said to me for the next half hour. The threats and abuse he shouted left me speechless, which was deliberate,” Byrne said.
    She asked several times to speak to Eavan but received only more threats and demands. The caller informed Byrne her daughter “saw something she shouldn’t have and started shooting off her mouth and now we have her.” He threatened explicit bodily harm if his demands were not carried out.
    First and foremost, Byrne was told not to contact the police as the caller said he “had a scanner and was watching for any activity.” She was instructed to drive to her bank to withdraw money.
    “How much cash can you get your hands on in an hour?”
    “How much is in your bank account?”
    “How old are you?”
    “What are you driving?”
    “I can see you, so don’t lie to me.”
    “There are people at the bank watching for you.”
    According to Dennis Curran, detective sergeant with the Orinda Police Department, this kind of incident “does not happen often here. It is not at all typical. This is a common crime in Mexico, similar to our car burglaries,” he said. “Targeted victims here are usually from the Hispanic populous, especially families who are not fluent in English or who are not privy with the law.”
    Byrne and her husband, Dan, did several things right. While on the phone, Byrne wrote a note telling Dan what was happening. He called Orinda Police, who said the call was a scam, though it seemed real to the couple. “It felt violent and terrifying,” Byrne said. “And, my daughter was uniquely unavailable at the time.”
    Byrne cooperated, but delayed every possible movement. She told the caller she was driving to the bank. She was driving, “but not anywhere in particular.” She claimed to be in heavy traffic. She lied about the make and model of vehicle. “The more he spoke, the less believable the whole story seemed, but I was sick to my stomach the whole time.”
    Dan Byrne was able to reach someone at the horse barn and eventually speak with Eavan. He sent a text to his wife and she hung up, ending the terror. She received an immediate call from the Orinda Police “who were lovely and kind and explained that this is all too common,” and that real kidnappings don’t happen quickly like this.
    “Orinda is not exempt from fraud,” said Curran, a 19-year law enforcement veteran. “I remember the case of an elderly woman who sent $10,000 after receiving a request on Facebook from a friend she hadn’t heard from in 10 years.”
    Kasey Byrne says she decided to go public about the ordeal to warn others. “I hope you can hang up fast and skip what we went through,” she says. “I am surprised at how gullible I was and at the enormity of the awfulness. Had I known about virtual kidnapping, it would have been easier for me to just hang up when the abuse started.”
    “I think there are more cases out there, but people are too embarrassed to come forward,” Curran said.

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