Anchorage police are warning of a new variant on an old phone scam, in which one man was ordered to buy gift cards by people falsely claiming his wife had been kidnapped – during a call which appeared to be from her phone.

According to APD spokesman MJ Thim, police responded at about 5:15 p.m. Thursday to the Midtown Fred Meyer store on Northern Lights Boulevard for a report of “suspicious circumstances,” after the victim visited the Alaska USA Federal Credit Union branch in the store and withdrew money there. He then headed to a nearby Walgreens pharmacy, where he told responding officers he had bought gift cards as “part of the ransom.”

The gift-card rack at a Walgreens pharamacy on Northern Lights Boulevard, where police say a man tried to buy gift cards to ransom his wife in a Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018 phone scam. (Rachel McPherron/KTVA)

“The victim stated the suspects called from his wife’s phone saying she was being held for ransom,” Thim wrote. “Officers worked quickly with the victim to locate his wife, who was safe, and determine he was a victim of a phone scam. The suspects had used a phone application to manipulate calls using the victim’s wife phone number on the caller ID.”

Thim said it’s not clear when the victim first got phone calls from the scammers. He declined to say how much money the callers had demanded or the victim had withdrawn, but said that APD’s response “definitely stopped the crime in progress.”

Employees at Fred Meyer and the Alaska USA saw the man withdrawing money and saying it was for a ransom, then contacted police – actions Thim praised Friday.

“Kudos to the employees for calling us right away when they notified something suspicious,” Thim said. “These employees did the right thing, and that helped us in the investigation tremendously.”

Thim warned that other versions of the scam have been “ongoing,” with scammers pretending to be in various positions of authority threatening and extorting people by phone.

“Victims believe they are receiving calls from friends, family members, businesses as well as organizations such as the Anchorage Police Department,” Thim wrote. “The suspects are using phone applications to disguise their phone numbers and then threatening or demanding money for various reasons. Some of the reasons include a missed court appearance, an arrest warrant and an unpaid debt.”

In November, Juneau police reported a wave of similar scam calls, including one in which a family was falsely told their daughter had been kidnapped.

Police don’t yet have leads on whether the suspects were calling from Anchorage, Thim said, but are “comparing notes” with other law enforcement agencies like the Alaska State Troopers on similar cases.

Although APD has received numerous reports in the past few months of police or trooper-impersonation phone scams, Thim said the stakes in Thursday’s case were far more personal.

“This is pretty brazen – this is really playing on family members’ loved ones and just taking advantage of that fact to just get quick cash,” Thim said. “These predators are preying on the victims’ emotions to get money.”

Anyone in town who is called by a scammer demanding money should report the incident to APD at 907-786-8900.

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