Randy Meier

Randy Meier

The grandparent or family emergency scam is a mainstay in the scammer’s bag of tricks. These calls, usually coming from callers posing as a grandchild, pull at the heart strings of empathetic family, to wring out bond money to get someone out of jail. This is a fairly successful fraud, designed to cause enough distress to pry open a wallet. 

Clinton County residents encountered an extremely souped-up version of this scam, what I call the “hostage hoax.” It’s proving even more lucrative for scammers and causing much, much more distress to those getting the calls. 

The story of one victim of this hoax covers the details pretty well, so I want to tell his story. Gene Kopp of Clinton answered a phone call while driving, returning from a visit to central Illinois. The call came to him through his hands-free service in his car. 

He heard a woman sobbing, crying loudly. She called him “Dad” and didn’t say much else. A man came on the line to confirm Gene was the woman’s father. He gave Gene the impression his daughter got injured in an automobile accident. 

But just as soon as he got Gene’s undivided attention, the story changed. The man said Gene’s daughter witnessed him and others in a drug deal, so they “snagged” her and held her for ransom. They told Gene to stay on the phone. If he disconnected, “It’s over,” he was told. 

The caller asked for Gene’s location, and used that information with Google Maps to direct and guide his travels. They directed him to Western Union and Moneygram agents in Davenport and instructed him to make two wire transfers, totaling $900, sending the money to Mexico. After sending the money, the crooks instructed Gene to destroy his receipts and throw his phone out the window. They told him if they detected his phone as still active, the deal was off. Gene did as instructed. 

The drama didn’t end until Gene, lacking a phone, drove to his daughter’s home in Camanche and found her spending an uneventful evening at home. 

These criminals kept Gene on the phone for almost five hours, directing his every movement, always threatening him, isolating him from contact with anyone else. 

Gene told me, almost from the beginning, he harbored major doubts whether this was real, but “I couldn’t take the risk.” He followed orders because of the threat of possible harm to his daughter. 

I wish I could say Gene’s harrowing story is an outlier or a one-off. I received 12 reports of calls just like the one Gene received. Another Clinton man lost $1,800 and spent six hours isolated on the phone before his ordeal ended. Everyone reporting these calls to me described the calls starting with a sobbing woman, followed by a ransom demand. 

How do you handle such a call? First, remember you read here, this is a scam. The criminals want to provoke unthinking fear in you. Don’t let them. Keep your cool. If you feel you must keep them talking, make every effort to alert someone else to come to your aid. Approach a stranger; ask them to call the police. Get help to contact the supposed hostage to confirm their safety. You don’t need to fight this fight alone.  

Whether you paid up or not, always report this to law enforcement. Any details you remember can be helpful to a investigation.

Contact Seniors Vs. Crime

Let me know about scams, fraud, or other crookedness you run across. Most of what I learn, I learn from you. Contact me at Seniors vs. Crime, Clinton County Sheriff’s Office, (563) 242-9211, Ext. 4433, or email me at randymeier@gapa911.us.