Florida Keys News
Monday, June 4, 2012
Scam focuses on fear
Caller threatens harm to relatives

Key West resident John McCormick was driving to Miami recently when he got a terrifying phone call. A Spanish-speaking man on the line mumbled something about a scooter crash, so he passed the phone to his wife, Fabiola, who is fluent in the language.

The caller said her brother was involved in a crash on April 30, and the caller was holding him hostage at gunpoint. He said if the couple didn't go to a Publix supermarket and wire him $2,000, he would kill her brother.

"It was horrific for her," said McCormick. "She was pleading with this guy on the phone. All she could think about was how we were going to come up with $2,000 cash. She was frantic. At the time, you don't know what to do or what you can do."

McCormick, the chief technology officer at The Citizen, told his wife to call her brother to verify the man's story. It turned out that her brother, who also lives in Key West, wasn't involved in a scooter crash and was fine. McCormick called police.

Officers who responded made sure that Fabiola McCormick's brother was fine, and had John McCormick call his brother, as well. But an arrest in the case seems unlikely, he said.

"I don't know what you can do, other than making other people aware of some of the lengths people are willing to go to for money," John McCormick said.

McCormick's story was similar to a May 24 case in Marathon, said Monroe County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Deputy Becky Herrin. A couple received a phone call, also from a man they didn't know, who claimed to have kidnapped their 14- and 21-year-old sons.

The caller told the parents to go to a nearby Publix or Winn-Dixie grocery store and wire him $1,500 or he would kill their sons, Herrin said. The couple was suspicious, but grew increasingly nervous when they could not reach their children.

When deputies arrived, the man was still on the line. They went with the father to the Publix supermarket, where the father had been instructed to wire the money to a woman in Puerto Rico, Herrin said. One deputy hid in the father's car while another watched from a distance.

Before the transaction could be made, the children were located and were determined to be safe.

Deputies are continuing to work the case, and have notified the FBI, Herrin said. That was the only such case reported to the Sheriff's Office, Herrin said, but there was another, similar incident May 15 in Key West, said police spokeswoman Alyson Crean.

According to police reports, a Fleming Street resident received a phone call from a man demanding that she send $1,500 or the caller would kill her brother. As in the McCormicks' case, the caller said a brother was involved in a vehicle crash resulting in serious injuries to the caller's family member, police said.

The call apparently came from a number in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. She, too, called her brother to verify he was OK, and then reported the phone call to police. Officers also spoke with the woman's brother, who confirmed that he was having a normal day at work.

"These are bad scams and people need to be aware of what is going on, but we have no reports of actual kidnapping," Crean said. "It doesn't appear to be widespread."

Herrin cautioned that arrests in the cases may be slow coming.

"These kinds of cases are very difficult to solve," she said. "We're certainly going to keep investigating them, but we want anyone who experiences this to contact us."

The scam is similar to another in which a caller claims a member of the target's family got into some sort of trouble while traveling overseas, and they need for the victim to sent money quickly, Herrin said.

"The Marathon case is the only one I can find where the caller claims to have kidnapped a family member," she said.

McCormick believes the scammer just got lucky with his phony story.

"I don't think he knew anything about us, and it just happens that my wife has a brother," he said. "If she didn't, he probably would have hung up and called the next number."

He shrugged.

"But who knows?"

Key West police ask that residents call 305-809-1111 to report such incidents, and Monroe County residents can call the Sheriff's Office at 305-292-7000.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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