TAMPA (FOX 13) - Phone scammers, possibly based in the Tampa area, were able to trick a college student out of hundreds of dollars. They told him they kidnapped his mother.
Kelly O'Brien called it a "perfect storm" of events when her 19-year-old son, Sam got the terrifying phone call on Saturday.
"My son got a call saying that I was kidnapped," said O'Brien. "They said if you get off the phone, we're going to hurt her. We're going to kill her."
The number had an 813 Tampa area code. O'Brien's son, who is away at college in Seattle, stayed on the line, but tried texting his mother while talking to the men.
But when Sam didn't get an instant reply from his mom, he started to panic. He sent a frantic text to his uncle, who was unable to reach O'Brien, as well. He told his nephew he was concerned the call could be credible.
Meanwhile, Kelly O'Brien and her husband were on vacation, attending a boat show in Miami for the weekend. They couple had little access to their phones, making them hard to reach.
"My brother tried to call my husband and I, and he [told my son], 'They're not answering. You've got to take this serious,'" O'Brien said.
The callers, two men with Hispanic accents, instructed Sam to go to a nearby Walmart and purchase prepaid phone cards. Each card had a $50 limit. For nearly an hour, Sam bough cards back-to-back, scratching off the codes and reading them to the men over the phone.
But Sam's uncle was eventually able to reach his parents, and the scam started to become clear. Sam got a text from his uncle, telling him to hang up the phone.
According to Kelly O'Brien, they likely would have continued urging Sam to buy more phone cards had he not realized it was a hoax.
"It was such an absolute violation that they could find this information and do this horrific thing to my son," said O'Brien.
She said Sam was traumatized by the ordeal. He called Seattle police to report what happened, but was told the scam was out of their jurisdiction. O'Brien said she reached out to Tampa police through the non-emergency line, but she never filed a report because the dispatcher told her the scam has been circulating for years and finding the culprits was unlikely.
"They asked me if I was OK, if anybody was physically hurt, and I said everybody is fine. They said they're not going to do anything with it, even though things were stolen, because there's no way that they can trace it," she explained. "I just don't want this to happen to anyone else."
O'Brien said she's working to spread the word about what happened to her family in hopes of preventing anyone else from being victimized.
Authorities typically advise people to be cautious when answering unknown numbers. Removing your name and any personal information, such as a company name, from your voice message, and using a generic voice message instead, could make it harder for strangers calling your phone to get information about you, as well.