SUMNER COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) – There's a new frightening crime wave sweeping across the nation, and Middle Tennessee is right in the cross hairs.
It's called virtual kidnapping, where a bad guy calls a number and then spins a story that someone has been hurt or injured. They obtain information from the startled victims and, using that information, weave a believable story.
Eventually the bad guys say a loved one is being held hostage and will be killed unless the person on the phone pays a ransom or gives in to some other demand.
It happened multiple times in Franklin recently, and Sumner County detectives told News 2 it's happened there four times already this week.
A woman and her mother were both terrorized Monday, thinking the other had been kidnapped and would be executed unless a ransom was paid.
News 2 spoke to a 31-year-old woman on the condition of anonymity.
"It was so real, but at the same time it was like, ‘Is this really happening?'" she said. "I was actually just in shock; it was unbelievable."
The 3 hours of terror began with a phone call from the 615 area code. A man with foreign accent was on the other side.
"He instructed me not to hang up, do not answer any other calls. If I do, he will shoot my mother in the head," the victim told News 2.
The 31-year-old business woman immediately headed to the Sumner County Sheriff's Department while on the phone.
All the while, the supposed kidnappers were telling her details about herself and her mother that nobody would know.
"The next day was her birthday. He knew that, and he acted like she was in his presence," the woman said.
Detectives say victims are susceptible because the bad guys are loud, aggressive, and stay in control. They keep the victims on the phone, not letting them mute it or put it on speaker.
Major Tim Bailey with the sheriff's department said he helped the woman, listening in on the scary details for three hours.
"They are in control during the phone call and it involves loved ones who could be hurt," Bailey said.
He added, "They spoke in heavy Spanish accent, very controlling, threatening."
Major Bailey felt the call was real when the hostage takers put the mother and daughter on the phone with each other for even a few moments. The kidnappers somehow set up a three-party call, allowing the victims to talk.
What they didn't know at the time is that the bad guys were on the phone with woman's mother at the same time, extorting her and saying they would kill her daughter if she didn't pay up.
"And the mother was in Nashville at this time and we called her work and her house and we had a helicopter ready to take off," Bailey told News 2.
"Probably the most terrifying moment of my life," the victim said. "At that moment, I thought this was really happening, and I would never see my mom again. I just asked her if she was ok, and she said, ‘Do what they said to do so this could be over with.'"
Major Bailey said the virtual kidnappers are making random calls, hoping to find victims. They often say a loved one has been in a wreck or gotten in trouble.
Then they start gathering personal information to use against the victims. Detectives warn not to give anyone any information over the phone.