A few weeks ago in Pittsburgh, Beth Royce said she woke up to an early morning call. Her phone lit up with her younger sister’s contact info and photo, so Royce answered. But it was not her sister’s voice on the other end of the line.
Instead, Royce said she heard an unfamiliar male voice say, “I got this girl and I’m going to kill her if you don’t send me money.” The man cautioned her not to contact the police or he would “shoot the sister in the head.” A petrified Royce silently signaled her mother, who was in town visiting, and continued talking.
“He sounded crazy. I heard muffled sobs in the background that sounded like a woman’s voice, so of course I thought this was my sister,” Royce said.
Over the 16-minute conversation, the voice demanded money via Cash App or Zelle, and she sent a total of $1,000. Meanwhile, her mother contacted her sister separately and learned she was safe in her apartment in Seattle.
Though it sounds like the start of a horror movie, Royce, who painfully recounted the experience in a now-viral TikTok and in an interview with HuffPost, was the victim of a fresh trend of personalized scams that target people using their loved ones’ names and information — possibly even, as in Royce’s case, the photo they use with their iPhone profile.
“I never fall for anything. And this was like the realest, scariest moment of my entire life, literally,” she said in her TikTok.
A Similar Scheme Targets Grandparents
Last week, the FBI office in Miami issued a public warning advising people to be aware of the similar “grandparent fraud scam,” which is becoming increasingly common, according to supervisory Special Agent Zacharia Baldwin.
That scam targets older people who are told in a phone call that a grandchild identified by name is under arrest and needs bail money, or some similarly fabricated emergency, the FBI said. They are then instructed to wrap money in a certain way and give it to a ride-hailing service driver.
“There are different types of attempted loss amounts we are seeing,” Baldwin told HuffPost. “The average is usually from $5,000 to $35,000, though we’ve seen scammers usually trying to milk as much money out of victims as possible. We’ve even seen a few situations when over $90,000 has been demanded.”
Unfortunately, once someone realizes they are being defrauded, it’s not always easy to recover the money.
“Getting money back depends on the method of payment and how soon after the correct parties, such as the banking institution or law enforcement, are contacted,” Baldwin said. “These criminals are really sophisticated in finding ways to launder money and usually try to get funds out of the country as quickly as possible.”
Royce, who is deep into wedding planning, said she sent the scammer half of the $1,000 via Venmo and the other half on Zelle, per his demands. She said the police came to her house about an hour after the initial call, and returned later to collect additional information about the caller’s contact numbers and her own banking information.
“I opened a police report as well as claims with my bank and still have not received any of my money back,” Royce said 19 days after she was scammed. “I am waiting on an update.”
What To Do If You Get An Emergency Call About A Loved One
Though it may be difficult in the moment to gauge whether an emergency call about a loved one is authentic, and panic can run high, it is advisable to contact the loved one from another app or device, like Royce’s mom did, to see if they are really in trouble or being threatened.
The FBI Miami office also suggested notifying law enforcement as soon as possible. The agency maintains a database for complaints related to cybercrime that may aid ongoing investigations.
The FBI also advised caution about what you publicly post online so that scammers do not easily have access to details and information about your closest friends and relatives. In addition, you should never provide identifiable personal information to strangers on the phone.
As in Royce’s case, even caller IDs that look familiar can be suspect, since scammers can utilize technology to mask their actual numbers and trick victims into thinking they are someone else.
Besides the monetary impact of being scammed this way, there can also be deep psychological effects.
“Even though my sister’s life wasn’t actually at stake, my brain thought it was,” Royce said. “I’ve been working with my therapist on processing the trauma so that I don’t end up with PTSD. I’m also dealing with the idea that I am a victim of a crime and want to share my story so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”