A man calling from Puerto Rico tried to use an over-the-phone extortion scam to prey on at least half a dozen victims in Irvine and Costa Mesa this week.
He appears to be targeting Orange County area codes, namely 949 and 714, Irvine police Lt. Julia Engen said.
During the calls, a man with a heavy accent tells victims that he is holding one of their family members and that the person is injured or in danger.
The scammer then threatens to hurt the captive if he isn't wired money, according to Costa Mesa and Irvine police.
None of the relatives was actually in danger, and police don't know of anyone who has fallen for the ruse and paid the money.
Though the scam hasn't been successful, "that doesn't mean that these people weren't horribly victimized," said Engen, who added that the scam takes advantage of a very visceral fear.
Costa Mesa police discovered the scam Monday morning when a motorist waved over a traffic investigator and had him listen to a phone conversation through her car's Bluetooth.
The caller was threatening the driver's sister, but police were able to locate the sister at a community college and trace the call to Puerto Rico.
Since that incident, five reports to Irvine police have described similar calls, Engen said.
Costa Mesa police have also received more reports about the caller, Lt. Paul Dondero said.
The two departments collaborated when an Irvine woman received a call threatening her grandchild, who was in class at California Elementary School in Costa Mesa.
Costa Mesa police responded to the school and verified that the child was safe while the grandmother stayed on the phone.
"The scary component for the victims, obviously, is when they are not sure whether the call is legitimate and that a loved one may in fact be in peril," Dondero said.
The scammer will often threaten the fake hostage with violence or death if there's a hint of his victim hanging up the phone or checking on the family member, according to police.
"He gets very verbally aggressive," Engen said.
Irvine police said the scammer has tried threatening grandkids, wives, children and others to extract money from whoever he is speaking to.
Often he will try to coax information about a relative out of his victim and then use it to feign familiarity with the fake hostage, Engen said.
"This guy is very smooth," she said.
Irvine and Costa Mesa detectives are following up on the threatening calls and contacting other law enforcement agencies, but Engen said she's unsure what can be done since the calls are coming from Puerto Rico.
She reminded residents Thursday to be skeptical of anyone who calls and asks for personal information.
Anyone whose been victimized by the scam should call his or her local police department, Engen said.