The most terrifying day in Adam Harding's life began with a phone call from his mother's number -- but the caller was a stranger who said the News 4 reporter's mom was being held hostage.
Alone in his apartment, Harding heard chilling screams coming from his phone as the stranger demanded ransom money in exchange for his mother's safe return. Convinced that his mother was in danger, Harding used his other phone to record the conversation and yielded to the caller's instructions.
"Whatever you do, please don't hurt my Mom. I'll do anything you want. All my money. I'll give you anything you want. I don't care what it takes," he told the caller.
What Harding didn't know at the time was that his mother was perfectly safe and that the phone call wasn't actually coming from his mother's number. It had been spoofed. The caller told Harding that he was high on meth and told him not to call the cops. Harding's mother called while he was on the phone with the scammer, who ordered him not to answer. Ten minutes later, the scammer was done with him.
By that point, he had already sent thousands of dollars on several apps and even bank wire-transferred money. He reported the case to the NYPD and has since recovered some of the money.
The nearly 90-minute call was an elaborate scam that sent Harding on a mission to understand how it ensnared him -- and how he can help prevent others from sharing the same fate.
Listen to NBC 4's Podcast "The Debrief" in the player below or click here.
Classic Money-Demand Scam Signs
Such money-demand scammers often use similar tactics in order to get the victims to send them cash, but the ones who preyed on Harding added a sinister twist, NYPD Captain Tarik Sheppard says.
"Seeing it come through and say, 'Mom’s number’s coming through.' Immediately that’s one where you know it’s hard to resist," Sheppard said, adding that faking a loved one's phone number is an added scare tactic.
"They’re going to rush you. You’re going to feel rushed. You’re going to feel pressured. They’re playing on your emotions," Sheppard said.
After listening to Harding's recordings of the scam call, one of the country's leading experts on fraud psychology, Dr. Marti DeLiema, said that it's a tricky situation to be in and the scammer used every trick in the book to keep him engaged.
"Not only were you in distress but you were also really distracted. You were actually cognitively tasked the whole time you were on the phone with them trying to do and follow these transactions … And so even the thinking part of your brain was busy throughout this whole time," DeLiema said.
Jay Van Bavel, a psychologist at New York University, said the scams work because they prey on heightened emotions. While it's unclear how the caller got Harding family's information, all the details became weapons the scammer used.
That's common in such scams, experts say.
"They want to trigger an emotional state in you that narrows your focus to that one issue and doesn’t allow you to step back and look for red flags or other issues that might be there," Van Bavel said.
4 Tips to Avoid 'Virtual Kidnapping' Scams
These scams, or what the FBI calls "virtual kidnapping," often prey on the elderly but they can happen to anyone. So how can people recognize the signs and protect themselves? Sheppard says you have to ask the right questions.
- Demand to speak with your loved one
- Ask for details on the caller's whereabouts
- Ask questions only your loved one would know the answers to
- Call on your loved one on another phone
"And when you see the resistance to you slowing it down, that starts to be the indicator that wait, there may be a scam going on," Sheppard said.