Anonymous caller gives ASU mom a choice: money or her daughter's life

One out-of-state Sun Devil mother experienced her worst nightmare yesterday when she was told by an anonymous caller that she would never see her daughter again — unless, of course, she could "cough up the bucks." 

The call turned out to be a scam, presumably designed to extort money from parents by claiming to have kidnapped a loved one. 

Seven hours away from ASU in Thousand Oaks, California, Helene Sicherman received the phone call from a man who identified himself as "Diablo." In the background of the phone call, Sicherman could hear a female voice crying out; unrecognizable words were being screamed through tears. Her heart dropped. 

The caller informed Sicherman that he had taken her daughter, an ASU student, because she had supposedly witnessed a murder — something Diablo said she shouldn't have seen. 

The caller told Sicherman to "cough up the bucks," or he would drug her daughter, ASU software engineering sophomore Alonna Hellinger, and take her into Mexico.

“He wouldn't give me any time to collect my thoughts or to get to my bank in Pasadena or to talk to my daughter," according to Sicherman's post in the ASU MOMS Facebook group. "He did keep offering to send me a finger.”

As Sicherman drove to the nearest Chase Bank, Diablo remained on the phone and listened to her every move. If she ended the call, she was told she would never get a call back and her daughter would be killed.

At the bank, the Sun Devil mom wrote notes to the tellers to explain what was going on, and to ask them to contact her husband who could call their daughter and see if she was OK. 

The bank employees at the Newbury Park location called the local police department who verified that similar scams were going on in the area. Captain Garo Kuredjian, Ventura County Sheriff’s Office spokesman confirmed this statement.

"We’ve had a number of phone scams over the past couple of weeks," Kuredjian said in an email. "The specific details of the scam change, but the underlying goal for the scams is to separate the victim from their money. We’ve pushed information out through our social media."

Her daughter, Hellinger, answered the phone, explained that she was in class and said she had missed calls from family members, two unknown numbers and a number starting with her hometown area code, which ended up being the bank. 

Needless to say she was both confused and nervous about what was happening. 

"I thought maybe something was wrong," Hellinger said. "My first thought was that someone had died."

Hellinger left her class for a moment to call her mother back and see what was wrong. Once she heard the story, she reassured her mom that she was safe. 

Her mother said that during that phone call, she made sure Hellinger knew she was loved — and jokingly told her not to witness any murderers.

Although Hellinger said she was relieved after ending the call with her mother and knowing everyone was OK.

Diablo tried to call Sicherman back during her phone call with Hellinger, but the Sun Devil mom let it ring. Diablo called a couple more times after Sicherman learned her daughter was safe — she did not answer again.

As of Tuesday, only one parent — Sicherman — has reached out to the ASU Police Department regarding a scam like this. 

Sicherman contacted ASU police through a personal Facebook message at 3:40 p.m., said ASUPD spokeswoman Katy Harris. 

The ASU Police Department shared on its Facebook page Tuesday morning a post explaining the dangers of the phone scam and told its followers to "beware of phone scam artists claiming to kidnap loved ones."

ASUPD gave tips to avoid becoming a victim of this extortion scheme when receiving a phone call from an unknown number.

  • Incoming calls come from an outside area code, sometimes from Puerto Rico with area codes (787), (939) and (856)
  • Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
  • Callers prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim
  • Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer service

If you receive a phone call from someone demanding payment of ransom for a kidnapped victim, consider the following:

  • Request to speak to the victim directly
  • Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
  • Ask them to describe the victim or vehicle they drive
  • Attempt to call, text, or contact the victim via social media
  • Request that the "kidnapped victim" call back from his or her cell phone
  • Try to call the alleged kidnap victim from another phone
  • To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to get things moving.

Virtual kidnapping is not new and has been used as a tactic to extort money across the nation, according to ASUPD. 

Sicherman said she wants every parent to know about the scam so they won't go through what she did. 

"It's easy to get sucked in," she said. The caller tried to isolate her and made demands that were hard to ignore. 

"When you think your child is in danger, you will do just about anything to protect them," she added. "Even if you know it's probably a scam, you always wonder: 'What if?' Try to keep them calm, try to stay calm yourself, and try to pass notes to people who would offer help and support."


Reach investigative reporter at rsantist@asu.edu or follow @SantistevanRyan on Twitter.

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