Police from across Bergen County rushed to the Chase Bank in Fair Lawn Thursday amid reports of a robbery in progress. Upon investigation, however, the robbery suspect ended up being the real victim in what police said is a common hostage scam.
The victim, who was not identified by police, received a cell phone call from an unknown individual claiming to have his brother-in-law hostage and demanding an $800 ransom, police said. The caller remained on the phone with the man, refusing to allow him to hang up, according to police reports.
In fear for his brother-in-law's life, the man drove to the Chase Bank on Saddle River Road to withdraw the money. In the process, he passed a note to the bank teller that said his brother-in-law had been kidnapped but not to alert the police until after he left, Sgt. James Corcoran said.
"The note’s idea was that once he leaves [the bank] to contact the police and let them know that his brother-in-law is being held captive," Corcoran said. "He didn’t want the police to respond while he was there because he thought [the kidnappers] were watching him. [He thought] if the police responded to the bank while he was there and the [kidnappers] were watching him, they would kill his brother-in-law."
Upon receiving the note, the bank teller followed protocol and triggered the holdup alarm. When Chase Bank security called the teller to confirm the alarm, she hung up abruptly, fearing that the alleged hostage taker, who was still on the phone with the man, might hear her speaking with bank security. As a result, bank security believed a bank robbery was in progress and contacted the police.
Officers from Fair Lawn, Glen Rock, Ridgewood, Paramus as well as the county, sheriff's office and state police departments rushed to the bank and established a perimeter.
When they arrived, the man was still inside the bank on the phone with the alleged kidnapper and trying to withdraw the ransom money, Corcoran said.
Eventually, police dispatch reached someone inside the bank and began getting bits and pieces of the true story. However, the strange nature of the situation made it difficult for officers to decipher exactly what was going on inside.
"It's very unusual to have an actor in the bank and then get a call from the bank, because their protocol is to allow him to leave with the money, then lock the door and call the police," Corcoran said. "I'm saying, 'Something's wrong. This is not protocol.' I don’t know whether it’s a hostage situation, a situation where this guy's looking to have it out with the cops or set up a trap and ambush us."
Finally, the man exited the bank -- still on the phone with the alleged kidnapper -- and was taken into custody without incident. He never made any threats toward the teller and was visibily frightened until officers were able to confirm that his brother-in-law had not actually been kidnapped, police said.
He was later released after the hostage situation was confirmed to be a hoax, police said. It was the third such scam Fair Lawn police received Thursday, but the only one that escalated this far, according to a police statement.
In an incident that occurred earlier in the day Thursday, Corcoran said a local woman was contacted by an anonymous caller who claimed her brother had been in an accident and demanded money. The woman was in the process of wiring the money over when she received a call from her brother telling her he was fine, police said.
The detective bureau is in the process of investigating who might be perpetrating these scams. The two cell phones that were used to make calls in Thursday's phone scams had Chicago and Waldoff, Md. area codes, police said.