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Olympic medalist Rowdy Gaines victim of virtual kidnapping scam

Caller told Gaines they had kidnapped daughter, threatened to kill her

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Scammers called swimming legend Rowdy Gaines over the weekend and threatened to slit his daughter’s throat.

Gaines and his wife received a phone call Saturday afternoon from a number that appeared to belong to their daughter, Madison, who is a college student in Colorado. 

Gaines, a former Olympic swimming gold medalist, told News4Jax that the scammer called his wife’s cellphone phone pretending to be his daughter. The scammer also called his daughter pretending to be officers with a Colorado police agency.

The caller told Gaines that kidnappers had his daughter and would slit her throat if he didn’t give them money. Gaines asked for proof and because the scammers were running a simultaneous scam on his daughter, they got her on the line and the two communicated, making the scam seem more real.

"I was literally scared to death," Gaines said. "I could hear a lot of screaming in the background.  Yelling at me, then calming down. You could hear people in the background say, 'Stop hitting her.'"

Gaines was suspicious at first when he was told to go to a Winn-Dixie and await further instructions. Then it appeared they put his daughter on the line. 

"Somehow or another, they have a phone with her on the line, had me on the line and said, ‘OK, you can talk to your daughter now.'  And I said, ‘Madison, are you OK?’  And she said, ‘Dad, I’m OK,' and that was it.”

Gaines and his wife called the police, who quickly arrived at their Orlando hotel to tell them it was a scam they had seen before.

“I felt like something was wrong when they asked me to start buying Visa gift cards,” Gaines told News4Jax. “Because, if they were holding my daughter kidnapped, I thought they’ve got to want more than Visa gift cards.”

Gaines believes the scammers knew he was an Olympic swimmer and may have money. He is not sure how they got access to the family's phones but did say his daughter’s Facebook account was recently hacked.

Gaines has since learned this is what’s law enforcement refers to as a virtual kidnapping ransom scam.  While he said the scammers didn't get any money from him, they did get some from his daughter after keeping her on the phone for hours and telling her they had warrants for her arrest. 

Former FBI agent Toni Chrabot, who now runs the Risk Confidence Group, said this is a common scam that often targets travelers.

"A number shows up in the 904 area code, so you answer it because you think it’s local. "(It) may not be local. (It) may not be in the state. (It) may not be in the country. That’s No. 1," Charabot said. "No. 2 is (for) families (to) communicate. Know where you are. Manage your online profile. Have family code words."

About the Author:

Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.