Crime & Courts

A scary phone scam targeting Anchorage residents involves fake kidnappings, ransom demands

The ordeal began June 29. It was late afternoon, and Shanette Harper was painting a room in her South Anchorage house when her mom's caller ID popped up on her smartphone screen.

But when she answered, she heard a man's voice on the line.

"He said, 'We're going to kill your mom if you don't give us money and do what we say,' " said Harper, a nurse and actress who performs in local theater productions in Anchorage.

The callers demanded Harper buy four $500 Visa gift cards. They warned her that they'd kill her mother if she hung up the phone or called the police.

For Harper, the next 52 minutes unfolded in a jumble of panic and incredulity: Who were these people? Why was she being targeted? And did they really have her mom?

"You don't want to take a chance," said Harper. "It's your family."

Across town, Harper's terrified mother was dealing with a mirror version of the threat: Around the same time, she too had gotten a call that appeared to be from her daughter — but wasn't. The callers had presented a similar set of threats and demands: Pay ransom in the form of $1,500 of pre-paid cash gift cards or her daughter would be killed.

They were each kept on the phone for almost an hour. Harper drove to the Jewel Lake Carr's and tried to slip the cashier a note about the situation as she bought the cards, with the callers on the line all the while.

Fifty-two minutes in the call dropped — and Harper called her mother back, fearing what the man had threatened. But her mom answered, and together they talked through the situation and realized neither was in danger.

Harper and her mother, who didn't want her name used in this story, had been the victims of a chilling and complicated scam police say is increasingly being used to target Anchorage residents.

The calls are an escalation of a technique in which scammers exploit widely available technology known as caller ID "spoofing" to make it look like calls are coming from somewhere they are not.

Callers create plausible-seeming kidnapping and ransom scenarios, leveraging information gleaned from social media accounts "to intimidate the victim" by making the threat seem more realistic, Anchorage police said in a press release on Saturday.

Police detailed two such incidents reported to police July 6 and 7.

One involved a man who got a call saying his wife had been kidnapped and he needed to bring money to a Fred Meyer for her to be released. Police say the caller even put her on speaker phone "for added effect" — possibly because the scammers were simultaneously on the phone with her.

Another form of the scam involves callers using the spoofing technology to make it look like a law enforcement agency is the caller and then demanding money for a made-up warrant.

Anchorage Police Department spokeswoman Kendra Doshier said Sunday she did not have information on how many such scam phone calls had been reported in recent months, or whether any arrests had been made.

Harper still has a lot of questions about what happened.

Harper said the callers seemed to know a lot about her: At one point they referenced the fact that she's a dancer.

She and her mom have different last names, so that part is confusing too.

"He started saying personal things which scared me," she said. "I thought I might actually get grabbed."

Harper and her mom are still dealing with the fallout of the phone scam more than two weeks later. Her mom is out $1,500 for the MoneyPak gift cards she bought.

The callers told her to read the numbers off the back of the card — apparently allowing them to access the balance remotely, Harper said.

Harper says the $2,000 of Visa gift cards she bought are being held as evidence by the APD and she hasn't been able to retrieve them yet. That money is locked up and unavailable to her, she said.

"It's a good thing I sat down and paid some bills the day before this happened," she said.

She wants people to know that the technology to mask phone numbers exists and is widely available. She's glad police are publicizing the scam but wishes they had done so sooner.

"It's really disturbing. I can't protect myself if I don't know the technology is out there."