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Police, victim warn of 'virtual hostage' phone scam

A Johnson County woman sent $1,500 to scammers who said they had her mother and threatened to kill her.

JOHNSON COUNTY, Ind. — Police are warning about a new twist on a phone scam targeting Hoosiers.

Victims say it's realistic and frightening.

In fact, a woman in Johnson County thought her mother's life was in danger. The crooks used fear over a phone call to get cash.

"It was terrifying. It was absolutely terrifying," the Johnson County victim told 13News.

When the call came in the middle of the night last week, the name and number on the victim's phone said "mom." Her phone had been in "do not disturb" mode, so only trusted contacts get through.

But the voice, when she picked up, was a man threatening violence, along with a woman screaming for help.

"The very first thing that was said was, 'I have your mom and I have a gun held to her head and if you don't do what I say, I'm gonna kill her,' and the whole time, there's a woman screaming in the background. In my mind, it was absolutely my mom," the woman said.

It was a daughter's fear, seemingly realized, on the other end of the line.

She asked us to protect her identity but wanted to warn others about what she now knows was a scam.

"They used my name, said 'I have your mom. I have a gun to her head. I'm not afraid to die. You call the police, I will shoot her and I'll shoot myself, too. Do not call the police, do exactly as I say.' It was very, very believable," she said. "The entire time, it was very believable."

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The call lasted 32 minutes. The man, who had a southern accent, claimed he needed cash to get home. He asked for the money through Venmo or her mom would get hurt.

"I'm a really skeptical person in general when it comes to things like this, so with the woman screaming, I had no reason to believe that it was a scam," she said.

The crooks on that call got $1,500 of the daughter's money. They tried for even more, on different platforms and apps, but those all got blocked by the bank.

She only learned it was a scam when she called her mom back directly, after the thieves hung up.

"I called my mom's home phone and she answered and I said, 'Are you OK? Are you OK?' and she said, 'Yeah, why?' When she said, 'I'm fine. Why? Are you OK?' I'm like, 'Oh... my goodness. I cannot believe that just happened,'" she said.

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Johnson County detectives are now working leads to catch these crooks.

"It was new and the first time I've heard of it," said Maj. Damian Katt, investigations commander with the Johnson County Sheriff's Department.

They say this particular version of a "hostage scam," with two people on the line, one of whom is screaming for help, is unusual.

RELATED: FBI information on hostage scams

But recently, a few Hoosiers have become targets with the same scenario.

Hackers typically get access to contacts on a mobile phone, sometimes do some social engineering to gain information about the person they plan to call, and then make it seem like they're calling that person from a loved one's number.

Awareness, Katt said, is often the best weapon against the scammers.

"Ideally, if we could educate folks on how to protect themselves to keep it from happening in the beginning, that's probably our best course of action, I think," Katt said.

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It's why this daughter is sharing her story.

She's thankful her mom is OK, but sickened that scammers exploited her biggest fear.

"It's similar to armed robbery. You know, they're forcibly getting you to send money with a threat of violence," she said. "I consider myself to be a pretty intelligent person and for them to get me in a situation like this and just the fear that came out of it, I don't want it to happen to anyone else. If I can share my story and prevent it from happening to someone else, that's what I want to do."