Wendy Mueller displays the image her daughter texted to her in the middle of a virtual kidnapping scam. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Wendy Mueller was standing at the copper sink in her gorgeous, historic Leesburg, Va., home last Wednesday afternoon when the knife she was holding slipped and cut her thumb.

Then the phone rang.

It wasn’t a number she recognized, but distracted by the bleeding thumb, she answered it. Mom always answers the phone.

She heard screaming. It sounded like her 23-year-old daughter’s voice, begging for help.

Then an unfamiliar voice announced, “We have your daughter.”

Wendy Mueller, who was the victim of a fake kidnapping scam last week, at her home in Leesburg. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

What followed next was five hours of hell.

Police call it a virtual kidnapping — an old scam that is having a renaissance across the country and particularly in the Washington region. The callers target affluent areas and find enough information online to make their ruse plausible.

Mueller, 59, had no idea that she was being played. She believed her daughter’s life was at stake and did everything she was instructed to do.

The kidnapper told Mueller to put her phone on speaker, get her purse and her phone charger, and get into the car.

“How much cash can you get right now?” he asked.

What is a daughter worth? Anything. Everything.

“$10,000,” she replied.

The voice — calm and eloquent with a faint accent but an Americanized command of the language — warned her not to try to get help from anyone. Otherwise, they would kill her daughter.

Her youngest child attends college hundreds of miles away in a town that’s a little rough around the edges, and Mueller had no way of knowing if she was really safe.

“They told me that they were actually targeting someone else, someone they would be able to get a lot of money for. But they said my daughter intervened when they tried to grab him. And that sounded exactly like something she would do,” Mueller said.

“I was terrified,” she said. “They told me they wouldn’t hesitate to kill her.”

The caller told Mueller he had hacked her phone and knew exactly where she was going. And then, for hours, he instructed her to go to small offices and stores across Northern Virginia, where she wired the maximum amount — usually $1,900 — to the name and addresses in Mexico that he had given her.

She went from Leesburg to Reston to Herndon to Arlington County to Seven Corners, crisscrossing Northern Virginia until nightfall, following his directions, turn by turn.

She kept asking to talk to her daughter.

“They kept promising me: ‘As soon as you send the last one, you will talk to her,’ ” she said.

He described the buildings in front of her or the fields she had passed, almost is if he were following her.

She thought of flagging someone down, but he could hear every move she made.

After every deposit, he told her to rip up the receipts. When he didn’t hear the ripping sound once, he noticed. So she grabbed another piece of paper and ripped it. He was satisfied, and she stuffed that whole receipt into her purse.

“I’ll call you Mom, and you call me Son,” he told her. She began crying.

“Stop crying, Mom,” he told her.

He talked to her throughout the whole ordeal, making sure he had her attention every minute. He told her he was a professional and part of a group of kidnappers — “a huge organization” — who do this all the time, and that they kill.

He said that they had put a set of headphones on the daughter, so she could hear everything, so she would know if her mom did anything to cause her death.

At each stop, in between answering his questions, she thought about how to ask for help.

What if she wrote a note to the clerk? But one word from the clerk, and he would hear it.

And at each money wire window or international mini-mart he sent her to, the clerks didn’t speak English well. One question, one “I can’t read this, ” and her daughter could be dead.

“It was torture,” she said.

And none of it was true.

Wendy Mueller’s daughter was in class, working on an artsy movie poster. The caller was a scam artist.

Scores of families have been targeted in California, especially in Beverly Hills, since last year. Then it happened in New York and Texas. And now there’s a rash of them in the Washington region.

“In the scheme, individuals call claiming to have kidnapped a family member,” the Prince William County police warned in May. “While no actual kidnapping has taken place, the callers often use co-conspirators to convince their victims of the legitimacy of the threat.”

In some cases, scammers gather enough online information to target their victims. By her Zip code, it’s easy to tell that Mueller lives in the nation’s wealthiest county, Loudoun.

There’s a chance they may have also figured out that her ex-husband, Keith Mueller, is a chief executive of Bookkeeping Express, a company that helps small businesses with their finances, and he was a longtime managing partner at Accenture.

But it’s also possible that the man who reached Wendy Mueller knew nothing about her until she picked up the phone. There’s a chance he made call after call, reaching voice mails and plenty of folks who don’t even have children, or who have sons, or whose kids were right there at home, or who didn’t sound at all like the screaming woman who was in on the caper. Those folks hang up and rarely call police.

So the caller tries again and again, until he reaches the ideal victim.

Mueller was it.

Her ordeal didn’t end until 8:30 p.m., after she had wired a total of $9,1oo to the scammers. Then she got a text from her daughter.

“Hey guys, look at what I was doing in class today,” her daughter wrote.

Mueller stopped cold. Wait. Her daughter was okay?

But then, the photo of her project popped up: an artsy movie poster of a young woman in distress. The film title was “Snatched.”

That was a coincidence, but it confused Mueller.

She was able to keep the caller occupied long enough to get a couple more texts from her daughter to make sure she was safe.

And finally, Mueller hung up. And that was it. The man never called back. He had already persuaded her to wire thousands of dollars.

“It was a total brainwashing,” she said.

She went to the Leesburg police and reported it.

Detective Doug Shaw, who interviewed Mueller, said the case is still open and the FBI is also looking into it.

Police were able to verify that the numbers and addresses she’d been given were those used in past scams. There have been at least four others in the Washington area in recent months.

Mueller wanted me to tell her story so others don’t fall prey to the same scam.

“It shatters everything. I can’t feel safe anymore,” she said. “I didn’t even want to get back into my car at first.”

Unlike a break-in or a robbery or some other crime that has a place, this virtual crime happened on her phone and in her head. And there is no escape from its consequences.

Twitter: @petulad