Law enforcement officials quickly mobilized and locked down a Nipomo elementary school in response to the suspected kidnapping of a young girl. The only problem was there was no actual kidnapping.
It began June 9, when a female Nipomo resident contacted San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office deputies to report what she believed was a kidnapping in progress. The woman told investigators that she'd received a phone call from an unknown man, who told her that her young daughter had been kidnapped. The man on the phone allegedly instructed the woman to proceed to a bank in Nipomo and withdraw $50,000 in ransom money.
According to a statement issued by the Sheriff's Office shortly after the incident, deputies responded to Dorothea Lange Elementary School in Nipomo, where the child was enrolled. As a safety precaution, the school was placed on lockdown around 11:43 a.m., according to a statement from the Sheriff's Office. During the lockdown, deputies were able to make contact with the girl at the school and confirmed that she'd never been kidnapped. The lockdown at the school was lifted at 12:20 p.m. after the girl and her mother were reunited.
According to sheriff's officials, the incident was an example of a new and concerning type of telephone extortion scam, dubbed "virtual kidnapping" by the law enforcement community.
"These extortion schemes are alarming in nature because they typically involve an individual who contacts a victim via telephone and demands payment for the return of a 'kidnapped' family member or friend," the Sheriff's Office statement read. "No actual kidnapping takes place."
The FBI has been trying to warn the public about virtual kidnapping scams since 2014. The goal of the scam, according to the FBI, is to instill fear, panic, and urgency in the victim, and to goad them into making a hasty decision to cooperate and give them the money. Signs that a call may be a virtual kidnapping scam include the perpetrators making multiple successive calls from an outside area code, callers preventing victims from speaking to their allegedly kidnapped loved one during the call, and a demand to have the ransom money wired instead of arranging an in-person handoff.
Both the county Sheriff's Office and the FBI suggest that anyone who thinks they may be the victim of a similar scam contact local law enforcement.
As of June 12, no suspects had been arrested in connection with the incident in Nipomo, and the investigation remains ongoing. If a perpetrator is caught, it's unlikely they would be charged with a kidnapping-related crime.
"Since no actual abduction took place, most likely the suspect would be charged with a fraud-related crime," said Sheriff's Spokesman Tony Cipolla.