“I answered the phone – ‘Hello?’ — and then I heard, ‘Mamma,’ in a terrifying scream. A man came on the phone and said, ’There’s been an incident and we have your daughter,” said 60-year-old Laura Bontrager.
She received a phone call from Mexico March 28 around 6 p.m. from a man who said he had her daughter hostage with a gun to her stomach. A young woman screamed for help in the background. He didn’t use her daughter’s name, but her maternal instinct told her the cries were from her youngest daughter, Juliana Bontrager, junior graphic design major and design editor for The Banner.
The only way he would let Juliana go, he said, was to wire him ransom money. Laura panicked.
There was one catch Laura would not know for two harrowing hours – none of it was true.
The man explained he had taken Juliana hostage because she witnessed a crime.
“He asked me, ‘Do you know what child molestation is?’ I said, ‘Yes,’” Laura said, “and he said, ‘Well, some of my men got carried away (with a child) and your daughter saw something she shouldn’t have. She screamed to call attention to it and now she’s in trouble (with us),” Laura said.
The man on the phone demanded that Laura drive to the nearest bank and ask the teller to withdraw all of the money in her checking account and wire it to him. Laura said she would talk to her husband right away.
“He said, ’No, no lady, you don’t make the rules around here,” Laura said. “You don’t talk to anybody. You don’t talk to your husband, you don’t talk to the police, you don’t talk to anybody if you want to see your daughter again.”
Knowing she needed help, Laura ran down the street to meet up with her husband, 60-year-old Keith Bontrager. When he answered the door, she shushed him to stay quiet — she was still on the line with the kidnapper — walked inside the house and wrote “Juliana is kidnapped” on a piece of paper.
As Laura and Keith got into the car to drive to the bank, the man on the phone instructed Laura on how to compose herself, what to say and what to do upon entering the bank, making her practice calling him “son” while he respond to her as “mother.”
Although the bank was closed, Laura went to the nearest ATM and withdrew the maximum limit for an ATM withdraw transaction of $1,000. Laura wrote down that Keith should try to get in touch with Juliana and any of her closest friends. They couldn’t reach Juliana.
Laura was on the phone with the man for an hour and a half and nearly wired him $1,000 when Keith stopped her. He’d reached Juliana’s boyfriend, Chris Davis, junior applied theology major. He said Juliana is OK and not actually in Mexico, but going about her day normally at California Baptist University, eating dinner with her Colony Apartments residents. Her mom hung up the phone. The man called back five times, but his leverage was gone.
Police call it “virtual kidnapping,” an old phone scam experiencing a recent resurgence. To carry it out, perpetrators using a Mexican phone number dig up enough personal information on the victim — names, phone numbers, school location — to come up with a plausible threat and demand a ransom from the victim’s family. They often target college students who live on campus, whose parents don’t have an immediate way to know their children are safe.
Juliana was, indeed, safe and unaware of the scam until she got a call from her boyfriend, Davis.
“I was super-confused because of the panic in his voice,” Juliana said. “I had no clue what happened, but my gut instinct was it was really bad. When I finally heard from my mom about 20 minutes later, I started crying.
“Hearing the panic that was still in her voice really disturbed me. For nearly two hours she had believed I was kidnapped and had to live in that fear.”
The Washington Post reported that the scam has been particularly prevalent in California, especially in affluent areas, but it has been seen nationwide, too.
Since the virtual kidnapping, Juliana said she talks to her parents more often, stays off her phone more and advises others to do the same. She also recommends students make themselves and their parents aware of the signs of virtual kidnapping and, should it arise, how to handle the situation.
“Know the signs of virtual kidnapping. Ask questions about the victim a scammer wouldn’t know the answer to and stall for time and try to contact the victim. Outside of those things, spend less time on your phone and more time with the people around you.”
Juliana isn’t the only CBU student who has experienced a virtual kidnapping. Freshman kinesiology major Morgan Greer said her parents received a phone call Feb. 19 from a con artist who claimed to be the Mexican mafia and knew where she went to school, her major and where she lived in Riverside.
“They put a girl on the phone who started started screaming “Daddy, daddy, this is Morgan,” Greer said. “I need you to come save me. I’m in Mexico — come save me; someone kidnapped me.”
Both virtual kidnappings paralleled in technique. Laura and Greer’s parents received a phone call from a 13-digit number from Mexico and heard a female voice screaming as a way of convincing the parents their daughter was with the mysterious caller.
Juliana and Greer said they assume the reason why the caller knew their personal information was because it is readily available on the Internet or social media.
If you have experienced virtual kidnapping, especially if money was wired, report it to your local police station.
The nearest Riverside police station is located at 4102 Orange St. and the number is 951-826-5700.