The FBI is warning of a telephone scam in the New York area where a caller claims to have kidnapped a family member and demands an immediate money wire transfer for the person's release.
No actual kidnappings have taken place, the FBI said, and the caller likely dialed telephone numbers randomly. The number of people victimized so far was not clear.
The requested ransom payments have varied between $600 and $1,900 so far, the FBI said in a statement released Tuesday. On some occasions, the caller has sought additional payments even after an initial payment was made, the FBI said.
"This is a scheme that takes advantage of some of the most vulnerable in New York City," FBI assistant director-in-charge George Venizelos said, adding: "We need the public to be aware of this scam and call us if they have been a victim."
Sometimes, the caller might try to persuade the victim that a relative was in a serious car accident with a member of a gang and needs to be hospitalized, officials said. The caller tells the victim the injured person will not be taken to a hospital until funds are wired to repair a damaged vehicle, officials said.
"Often the reason they are holding the alleged victim varies," the FBI said, "but some of the most prominent scams involve car accidents, drug debts, gang assaults or persons being smuggled across the border."
The caller often insists on getting a money transfer while the parties remain on the line.
During the call, the fake kidnapper might have "a young female scream for help."
Signs that a person might be a victim of such a scam, the FBI said, are incoming calls made from an outside area code -- sometimes from Puerto Rico, with area codes 787, 939 or 856, officials said.
Calls that do not come from an alleged kidnap victim's phone are another sign, officials said, as is callers accepting payment only by wire transfer. Callers going to great lengths to keep potential victims on the phone or prevent them from calling or locating the alleged captive are other signs, officials said.
The best way to avoid being victimized is by asking to speak to the alleged kidnapping victim or attempting to contact them by email or telephone while keeping the caller on the phone, officials said.
The FBI is asking anyone possibly victimized to call them at 212-384-1000 or the NYPD at 800-577-TIPS. All calls will be kept confidential.