By: Jen Russon
When her cellphone rang at 1:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon, Katie Watson didn’t think anything of it. She was just sitting down to lunch in her Heron Bay home. Her husband, Steve was working down the hall. The couple’s only child, Chloe was at Westglades Middle School, in Parkland.
Watson said she didn’t recognize the caller’s number, but picked up anyway. The person on the line sounded like a child in distress.
“At first, I thought it was a wrong number – that a sick child was trying to get in touch with her mother,” said Watson.
Some twenty seconds later, her theory evaporated when a man spoke. After addressing Katie by her name, he said that the whimpering child she just heard was her own daughter Chloe.
“Katie, I have your daughter. She’s in the back of my van,” said the unidentified man.
She added that he spoke in a clear, calm voice; she couldn’t place an accent on the man who told her he had kidnapped Chloe.
“I cut him off because something told me it was a scam — though it bothered me that he somehow knew my name,” said Watson.
She knew that Westglades Middle had extremely tight security and so she chalked up the call as a scam because she simply could not envision anyone being kidnapped from the school.
What happened next, however, rattled her. Just to be sure, Watson checked Chloe’s location from her phone; though it initially showed her at school, the tracker jumped to another location in Parkland.
“My heart dropped and I started to panic. At the very least, I thought maybe someone had possibly stolen her phone.”
Watson said that the eighth grader only recently acquired a cellphone and that, in a situation like this, thought it best to text a friend of her daughter’s rather than call Chloe directly. If a kidnapper had her daughter’s phone, they might be able to unlock it, and pretend to be Chloe.
She ran to her husband Steve’s office and told him what was going on.
“He checked her location again, and it showed that it was at the school, where it should be,” said Watson, relieved even in recounting the story.
Her parents knew it was Chloe’s lunch time; they dialed up one of her friend’s numbers, and confirmed her daughter was safely eating in the school cafeteria. At that point, Watson felt comfortable getting Chloe on the phone, and mother and daughter texted back and forth that all was well.
Her daughter called what happened crazy. One might also call it common.
“I pretty much had a heart attack,” said Watson, adding that she and her husband traced the area code to a caller registered in Mexico.
According to the FBI, inmates in Mexico City prisons are cold-calling U.S. numbers, tricking the person who picks up into believing a loved one has been kidnapped. The scammers demand thousands of dollars in exchange for the safe return of a son or daughter.
Watson said that when she told of her ordeal on Facebook, a friend who went through the same thing was not fooled because the scammer on the phone could not produce his child’s name when he asked for it.
The perps tend to target affluent areas for this scam.
The Watsons moved to Coral Springs a few years ago from Virginia, just on the outskirts of Washington D.C. They said that scammers have left them feeling vulnerable with email before, but never before on the phone.
The family said that they will contact the Coral Springs Police Department about the incident, and get in touch with the FBI.
The FBI has advised victims of this kidnapping scam to simply hang up on a suspicious caller, much like Watson’s gut instinct lead her to do. Victims are also advised not to reveal their child’s name.
The FBI is calling the response, Operation Hang Up – as in, if you get a call from an unknown number with a crying person on the line, hang up the phone and alert the FBI.
“I just wanted to share my story in case it happens to anyone else,” Watson said. “No one should get a panic attack over this.”
Jen Russon is a freelance writer and English Language Arts teacher. She has published two novels to Amazon Kindle and lives in Coral Springs with her family.