When Professor Melanie White’s foundation of speech class concluded, she received an anonymous call. The caller told White that her husband had been in an accident and hit the caller’s seven-year-old nephew while pulling out of a gas station.
The twist was that the caller told White that his cousin was wanted for murder, therefore they did not want to contact the police about the incident.
“It’s like a movie scene. They elevated my heart rate quick,” White said. “So, they say this, then they hook me in.”
As the caller spoke, she put her phone on speaker. “My thought was, involve somebody,” she said.
A few students stayed behind. The callers said White’s husband was insistent on calling the police. Due to his valiant, yet intrusive efforts, the two adults said they took him hostage.
“We can’t trust anyone. So, we have taken your husband to my cousin’s apartment and he’s being held at gunpoint until we know we can trust you and you can help us with the medical bills for my nephew,” the phone scammers said.
White gave directions to those who remained in the classroom. She wrote messages and numbers down on a notepad for students to scatter around the campus and inform others.
Willie Ferrell, a student of White’s and boxing trainer to her young son, was contacted by the professor and decided to help.
“I contacted Willie because he was in the class I was headed to go teach and I knew he had a car in case we needed one. I just didn't want to be alone – I wanted someone who could make phone calls for me since I couldn't use my phone,” White said.
The caller insisted she stayed on the line with him.
“She text me and asked me to come to her car and I didn’t know what was going on. She told me someone had her husband. I asked her to just stop by my car so both of us could be protected,” Ferrell said.
Once they left Florida A&M University’s (FAMU) campus, White drove to Winn-Dixie to potentially transfer money for her husband's release.
“They started at $2,000, went down to $1,000 then settled at $650 just before the call was over,” the FAMU professor said. However, White ended up not transferring the money when she got news the fiscal was a hoax.
“I gave Willie numbers of Lance and several people at Lance's office to try to get hold of Lance. He finally got one of the workers at Lance's office to get Lance on the phone and as soon as I heard Lance's voice, I hung up the phone with the bad guy.”
After she hung up the phone, White headed to her husband's office at Florida State University (FSU) to see him and filed a police report.
After speaking with the FSU police, the victim said she was targeted by the scammers because her husband is the assistant head coach of FSU’s women's basketball team. During the season, he travels often and does not have much communication with her.
FSU Crime Prevention Officer Chris Blair has handled 10-15 cases like these.
“I get more calls from people asking if they are being scammed,” Blair said. “A lot of times the calls come from overseas.”
The officer said these attacks have increased over the years and the stories and scenarios from the scammers vary.
“There’s an IRS one, the Nigerian prince who needs money, a kidnapping, one where they say a member of your family is being arrested and the car wreck one,” the officer said.
After this experience, White realized what she could have done differently.
“Looking back, what could we have different or what we could have prepared for something like this. I had always heard have a safe word, but I didn’t know what that meant,” the instructor said. “
What it would be is our family would have a safe word. I would say to the bad guys, if you have my husband, ask him for his words. Then if he can’t provide my husband saying the word, he doesn’t have my husband.”
Due to this event, she researched online articles about scams and now finds it necessary to be prepared.