published Saturday, June 14th, 2014

Police warn of hostage scams in Hamilton County area

A scam aimed at luring people into wiring money in exchange for the release of family members supposedly being held hostage has reached Hamilton County after hitting Atlanta in late April.

On Monday and Tuesday, Chattanooga police responded to separate incidents in which local residents said they had been contacted by someone with an Atlanta-area phone number and warned that if they did not wire money, their brother would either be killed or be held in captivity.

A Hamilton County Sheriff's Office spokesperson added that county officers have worked similar incidents within the past 10 days.

In a Tuesday case handled by Chattanooga officers, the suspect called a man while he was at Walmart and told him that his brother had been in a wreck somewhere in the city. The caller then said he needed $3,000 or he would kill the man's brother.

Officers arrived at Walmart and listened to the call over a speaker phone. According to the police report, screaming could be heard in the background which made the victim believe his brother was being tortured.

"The suspect was very demanding to [the victim] and repeatedly told him he was going to kill his brother," the report states. "Police were familiar with other reported calls of the same type that have turned out to be a scam."

Dispatchers determined the call came from a prepaid wireless phone in Puerto Rico and advised that similar calls had been made from the same phone number recently.

The man at Walmart then talked with his brother, who was at home and OK.

On Monday, Chattanooga police responded to a home on East 28th Street about a possible scam. The victim "told the caller what he thought of him and hung up the phone," according to the police report.

Atlanta police handled similar cases this spring, including one on April 25 where the victim wired $1,500 to the caller after he could not reach his brother by phone. Later that day, his brother called and said he had been busy at work and that's why he could not answer.

In four police reports, two provided by Chattanooga police and two by Atlanta police, the caller was described as a Hispanic male three times, and in the fourth instance the money was wired to people named Ivette Cruz and Janice Bonilla.

Calls to a phone number used multiple times in the scam went straight to an automated message Friday that said the number was not working.

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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