LAWRENCE — Deyanira Marinez was at Tenares Auto Shop on Broadway last Sunday waiting for her car to be repaired when her cellphone rang.
A man on the line gave her some chilling news: “He said my father was in an accident,” said the 25-year-old Lawrence resident. He then said that her father was being held at his brother’s house, and that unless she paid $3,000 to repair his damaged BMW, his brother could “lose his temper” and harm or even kill her father.
Upset and trembling, Marinez was overheard by an employee at the shop, who told her to call police.
Holding her hand over the phone, she said she couldn’t, because the man was telling her not to hang up but to go to a Walgreen’s, get a pre-paid AT&T card and wire the money to an account controlled by the kidnappers.
She said if she hung up without paying, her father would be hurt.
Unbeknownst to her, however, Marinez’s father was fine: He was at work and nothing out of the ordinary had happened to him all day.
Thanks to the intervention of the auto shop employee and quick action by police, Marinez did not become another victim of a scam that is sweeping through the Latino community, here and elsewhere, in which the perpetrators, usually speaking Spanish, try to get money from people after convincing them a loved-one is being held hostage.
Lawrence police say they have received a half-dozen similar complaints in recent weeks. Police in Springfield say that they received four reports of the cellphone kidnap-scam during a three-day period in early November. Similar scams have been reported in Chicopee, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida, among other places. Authorities believe the scam may originate in Puerto Rico.
Police Chief John Romero said he wants to get the word out to people that this is going on.
“It’s a scam,” he said. “There is no kidnapping here.”
He said the scammers “try to keep the person on phone the entire time they (victims) are taking money out of bank. They keep you on the phone so you can’t confirm the person hasn’t been kidnapped.”
As the discussion goes on, the scammers are “sizing up the person they are calling, based on age and voice.”
In this case, they got Marinez to volunteer her name to them, making it seem as if they knew more about her than they actually did.
“They’ll try it 100 times and get one person,” he said. “Most people hang up, but every now and then you’ll get someone who will listen.”
Marinez was successfully duped, at least for a while.
She said it was the most stressful two-hour call she’s ever had.
“I never faced a situation like that,” she said. “I’m not the kind of person who believes everything, but I believed him.”
She said she couldn’t figure out “how he got my number,” adding, “I only give it to people I know. He said he got it from my father’s cellphone. He said, ‘This is between you and me. I don’t want you calling the police.’ I said, ‘How do I know this isn’t a joke?’ He said, ‘We have your father. He’s in my brother’s apartment. You cannot call the police.’”
And they seemed to have some key details, such as the color of her father’s car, which is blue. However, they didn’t know her father’s name.
The auto shop employee who overheard part of this conversation called police, who arrived at the shop around 10:15 a.m., under the impression that there was an actual kidnapping going on.
They found Marinez “visibly upset ... She was shaking, appeared anxious and was pleading with the unknown male to ‘please don’t hurt my father,’” according to a police report.
Police instructed her, using hand-written notes, to “keep calm (and) keep the alleged kidnappers on the phone.” They had her place the call on speaker so they could listen.
As she was speaking with the man, police officer Maurice Aguiler provided her with written instructions enabling them to gauge the veracity of the allegations while also obtaining information that could be independently verified by another officer, Jaime Adames.
As the conversation continued, Adames called Marinez’ father.
“He stated that he was at work and had not experienced anything out of the ordinary on this day,” Aguiler wrote in the police report.
At one point, Aguiler spoke directly with the caller, he said in his report.
The man said Marinez’ father would be “killed if the money wasn’t gathered within the next few minutes.”
But the caller hung up after being unable to prove that he had the woman’s father.
As she looks back on the incident, Marinez can’t believe she believed him, as the story behind the kidnapping became more and more outlandish.
“I offered to give him cash, but he said he wanted me to go to Walgreen’s and buy a pre-paid AT&T card,” she said. The man would then instruct her how to wire the money to him.
“I said, ‘When do I get to speak to my father?’” she said. “He said, ‘Oh, he’s in my brother’s apartment. I’m not near there.’”
Then the man told her that her father was injured, and had a head wound.
“He said his brother was keeping my father with guns,” she said. “It sounded like a cowboy movie. He probably watches a lot of TV.”