It’s not just one.
Executives, store owners, single mothers and a host of other Horry County residents fell victim to a scam that hit the area where a caller claims to be holding loved ones for ransom.
“People have to know, they have to be educated, because I … I’m a very naive person, I’m a single mom. All I could think was I got to save my child,” said Cindy Owens. “I don’t care what I have to do, I don’t care how much money I got to get, I got to save my child.”
After reading about Shane Benoit’s experience in the scam, others took to social media to share similar tales. Stories of callers claiming to kidnap a loved one and threatening harm.
The calls appear to be coming from South Carolina with an 843 area code. Victims say they answered thinking it was someone they knew, only to be taken for a ride of a lifetime. Some say the calls came from 843-796-0069 or 843-692-6751 — both go to automated messaged when contacted.
‘It was very terrifying’
Owens got the call on her way to work, just after leaving her 11-year-old son in his grandmother’s care. The caller mumbled and sounded like her son, who said he was in trouble.
A Hispanic-sounding man then told Owens that he kidnapped her son and she needed to wire $5,000.
“He told me if you don’t do what I tell you you’ll never going to see your son again,” Owens recounted.
Owens wired the money to Florida and Puerto Rico, though some transfers were flagged as suspicious. She lost more than $3,000 in the scheme.
At one point, during the five-hour ordeal, the caller put Owens on hold. That hold was timed perfectly as Owens’ son texted and nonchalantly asked when she was coming home, a message she wouldn’t have seen if she was still on the call. That is when Owens knew it was a hoax and rushed home. She busted in the door to see her son uninjured and ended the call.
“I was traumatized. It was very terrifying, but when I walked in the door and saw my son, I was like I just couldn’t believe it happened to me,” she said. “I never heard about that scam before, but I just never thought it would happen to me.”
A call from home
Rebecca Usry grew up in Myrtle Beach, but now lives in New York, so it wasn’t unusual to see an 843 area code on an incoming call. “Mom, I really need your help,” were some of the first words said, and Usry remembered how scared the person seemed. The caller was also whispering in what seemed like an effort so others wouldn’t hear.
Usry asked who was calling and what was going on. It took her a minute to snap to reality and realize she doesn’t even have a child. It was then she told the caller this fact and they strangely asked if she wanted one. Ursy knew it was a scam call and quickly hung up.
“It was so bizarre,” Usry said.
Despite being a hoax, the call still left Usry flustered an hour after the call.
She forgot about the ordeal for a few days until she saw Benoit’s story and others with similar experience.
‘A half an hour being tortured’
Jim Varcadipane received the call in June and heard a mumbled voice who said he needed help. Another man came on the phone, described as an Arabic-sounding voice, and told Varcadipane that he had his son, James. The caller said James and his best friend, Anthony, owed $4,000. If they didn’t get the money, they were dead.
“I’m 53 years old. I’ve never been horrified this bad in my entire life,” he said.
Varcadipane offered to drop off the money and pick up his son and called the person on the other end of the line every name in the book. While on the phone, Varcadipane’s girlfriend called police who listened to part of the call. She also called James, who was at work and unaware of what was happening.
The fear and anger in Varcadipane’s voice is easy to detect as he recounted the experience nearly a month later.
“For a half an hour being tortured by this person … he needs to be brought to justice,” Varcadipane said.
Law enforcement aware
Local police agencies are aware of the scam, though Myrtle Beach Police Capt. Eric DiLorenzo said they have not seen an increase since the first news reports.
The department encourages people to contact police if they received a call, DiLorenzo said. He added that one caller might share information that another victim didn’t experience. That bit can help investigators determine who is behind the scam.
Horry County Police had two reports of the scam. In one, the victim was told that the suspect had her brother and she needed to give a $500 gift card, according to a police report.
The other case occurred Thursday, and the callers said they had the victim’s son. A police report states the victim saw news reports of the hoax and hung up. The suspect immediately called back and told the victim her son was now dead. The woman called her son, who was fine.
The scam is known as virtual kidnapping and has been around for decades, according to a recent FBI article. It once was limited to southern, border states and Mexico. But, thanks to technology, the scam occurs nationwide. Each call uses an extortion method for a quick payday before the scheme falls apart