Nationwide extortion scams hit hard in Arroyo Grande

Posted at 5:14 PM, May 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-13 20:14:16-04

Imagine getting a phone call saying your loved one is being held hostage and the only way to get them back is to pay ransom.  

That same phone call is the terrifying ordeal one local mother went through, but it was a bank teller and seasoned police officers who saw through the scam.

"I’m sorry but your daughter was in the wrong place at the wrong time and I have her here," Sandy Gong recalls a man telling her over the phone. "I have a gun to her head."  

The call came from an unknown, New York area code phone call.  Gong could hear a young woman crying in the background, and she says the voice sounded just like her daughter Sarah’s.

"I said Sarah what’s going on what’s going on?" Gong said. "She said they have a gun to my head they’re going to kill me.  They’re driving me somewhere I don’t know they just took me."

Sarah had traveled to Ventura for a party, so the timing of the call eerily made sense.  The man got back on the phone line, and thinking Sarah was in danger, Gong followed the stranger’s commands.

"’Tell me how much is your daughter’s life worth.  Listen to my rules.’ And so he instructed me to go straight to the bank then he said ‘I need 5000 dollars from you.’"

Once at the bank Gong wrote a note to the bank teller explaining the situation while still on the phone with the stranger.  Despite trying to tell the man there were others in line, the caller wanted money.

"He said use the ATM," Gong said of the continued demands.  

The bank teller had already called the police for Gong, but she still went out to the machine.  Before Gong could withdraw funds from the ATM, officers from the Arroyo Grande Police Department arrived.

"What you want to do in that situation is slow down the conversation try to buy as much times as you can," said Derrick Porter, an officer with the Arroyo Grande Police Department.

Porter and his partner instructed Gong to ask the caller questions like what car Sarah drive, her middle name, and what color her hair was.  All while Gong was still on the phone with the stranger.

"We were able to communicate with her.  She wrote us messages and we were able to get the phone number and while she was holding him on the phone we were able to get in touch with her daughter," Officer Porter explained.

Once Gong knew Sarah was safe, the charade was over.  The threatening stranger gave up and the call ended.  But Officer Porter says the extortion scam isn’t new.  

"They happen here but unfortunately they’re on the rise here and across the country."

Commander Shawn Cosgrove of the Arroyo Grande Police Department also said numerous extortion scams like this have been reported across the area in the last few months.  The department recommends if you get a call like Gong’s, hang up and call your loved one.  You can also always call your local law enforcement.