Bomb Threats Across the U.S.
(CNN) -- Federal investigators are looking overseas for clues and
suspects in a scam that uses bomb threats to extort money from banks
and stores, law enforcement officials told CNN.
Wal-Mart employees gather outside the store in Newport, Rhode Island, after a bomb threat on Tuesday.
For the past week, banks and stores in at least 13 states have been
hit by the scam, in which a caller claims there is a bomb on the
premises that can be detonated if employees don't meet a demand to wire
money to a specific account.
In one incident in Kansas, the caller ordered store employees and customers to take off their clothes, police said.
A source told CNN that investigators are looking for a suspect in
Portugal who appears to be linked to an account number the caller uses
in his demands. The source said it is believed to be either a single
person or a small group tied to an account in Portugal. Video Watch
SWAT teams respond to bomb threats »
At least $13,000 has been extorted, according to a law enforcement source.
One of the latest calls came into the Hannaford grocery store in the small town of Millinocket, Maine, on Wednesday.
As in many of the cases, the caller "[made] it seem very realistic
that they're right in the building or right outside, almost like they
have a visual," Millinocket Police Chief Donald Bolduc said.
About 38 shoppers and employees stayed in the store for at least three hours while police investigated the call, the chief said.
to the Bangor Daily News, employee Linda Day answered the phone and the
caller said, "This is a threat. Don't put me on hold."
The call startled Day, who said "What?" and then handed the phone to
someone else, who verified the threat, the newspaper reported.
Bolduc said police tried to trace the call, which originated from a
cell phone. "It was either national or international ... it was not a
local cell phone company," he said.
Bolduc said the scare was "quite significant" to the small rural community, about 72 miles north of Bangor.
"You just don't think of things happening like this in our area," he said.
Bolduc said his department and other local law enforcement agencies are working with the FBI.
FBI spokesman Rich Kolko said the spate of scam calls started in
Portland, Oregon, on August 23 and picked up momentum three days later.
"The investigation and leads so far point to it being likely this is one person or one group," he said. "This is criminal."
Kolko added there is no link to terrorism.
In addition to Maine and Oregon, the scam calls have been received
in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri,
Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah and Virginia, officials said.
The FBI is investigating an incident at a Dillons grocery store in
Hutchinson, Kansas, and one at the Nodaway bank in Savannah, Missouri,
which received a threat Friday, Kansas City FBI spokesman Jeff Lanza
He said both attempts succeeded, but would not disclose how much money was involved.
"We're looking at a foreign connection," he said.
Lt. Paul Scofield of the Hutchinson police told CNN that several
other bomb threats in the town on Wednesday were determined to be
On Tuesday, more than 100 employees and shoppers at a Dillons were
ordered to take off their clothes, and led to believe the caller was
watching them, Scofield said.
"Some did actually disrobe, and others didn't," he said.
Police are still investigating whether the caller was watching the
store, he said, adding that "whoever it was sure had them convinced
In another incident, a Wal-Mart store in Newport, Rhode Island, was evacuated Tuesday morning after getting such a bomb threat.
The caller to the Wal-Mart demanded that $10,000 be wired to a
location outside the United States, according to Sgt. James Quinn with
the Newport police. The frightened employees did not send the full
$10,000, a federal law enforcement source said.
The employees were afraid the would-be bomber was in their store; they didn't leave until a SWAT team arrived, Quinn said.
Quinn said early speculation that the caller was a disgruntled
employee was shot down and that the call was traced to outside the
United States. He would not disclose the location[/q]
R.I. — Large grocery and discount stores across the country have been
targeted by a caller who threatens to blow up shoppers and workers with
a bomb if employees fail to wire money to an account overseas,
Frightened workers have wired thousands of dollars — and in one case
took off their clothes — to placate a caller who said he was watching
them but may have been thousands of miles away. The FBI and police said
Wednesday they are investigating similar bomb threats at more than 15
stores in at least 11 states — all in the past week.
"At this point, there's enough similarities that we think it's
potentially one person or one group," FBI spokesman Rich Kolko said
No one has been arrested, no bombs have been found, and no one has
been hurt, though the calls have triggered store evacuations and
prompted lengthy sweeps by police and bomb squads.
Law enforcement officials say the caller claims to have a bomb and
orders the store to send money to an account through an in-store money
transfer service such as Western Union. He often claims to be able to
see inside the store, but officials believe he was making it up.
In Newport, employees at a Wal-Mart got three calls Tuesday morning
and wired three payments totaling $10,000 to an account out of the
country, Sgt. James Quinn said. A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
said the company was assisting in the investigation, but offered no
The first of the threats that federal investigators are aware of
came last Thursday at a Safeway in Sandy, Ore. The caller initially
said he had a gun and was watching the store, but after meeting
resistance to his demands he claimed to have a bomb, Sandy police Chief
Harold Skelton said.
In Buchanan, Mich., on Monday, the caller directed employees of a
Harding's market to lock the front doors, move to the front and told
them not to call police, said Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey. The
man claimed he could see some workers standing up, and ordered them to
"He's just ad-libbing," Bailey said. "He can't see anything."
Nonetheless, Bailey said, the employees were so afraid they wired
the caller $3,000. The manager even hung up the phone when authorities
called, saying a bomb would go off if he talked to them.
Bailey said that in a phone call with police, the man even offered
to trade a "hostage" for a police officer to make his threat more
The caller has not gotten every store he's called to give up money,
but the FBI on Wednesday did not provide the total amount taken.
Also targeted were Dillons grocery stores in Hutchinson, Kan. At one
store Tuesday, the caller ordered customers and employees to disrobe.
Employee Marilyn Case told The Hutchinson News that store manager Mike
Piros argued with the caller, but they relented when he continued to
make threats and instructed them to "do it now."
He then demanded that one of Piros' fingers be cut off for every
hour his demands were not met, and another employee got a butcher knife
on his orders, Case said. Jim Peterson, a customer, told the newspaper
that people became distraught.
"People came undone and started saying, 'No, no,'" he said.
Piros was not harmed. Police there initially said they were
investigating whether the caller had hacked into the surveillance
system, but later backed away from that possibility.
The calls continued Wednesday, with a threat at a Hannaford
supermarket in Millinocket, Maine. An employee arrived to find the
doors locked and employees and customers sitting inside in a circle,
said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public
Store maintenance associate Ivan Garay told the Bangor Daily News
that store manager Michael Bennett told everyone to sit on the floor.
Later, they were told there had been a bomb threat.
At a Safeway supermarket in Prescott, Ariz., a caller with an accent
demanded $2,850 on Tuesday, according to police and city spokesman Kim
"The maximum that Western Union can send through its service is
$3,000," Kapin said. Wiring money also includes a $150 service charge,
Kapin added. "This individual was obviously aware of that."
Initially, the caller led employees to believe he was observing them.
"After a while, it sounded like he was just taking a shot in the
dark at what they might be doing, or what they looked like or how they
were reacting to his call," Prescott police Lt. Ken Morley said.
Sherry Johnson, a spokeswoman for Englewood, Colo.-based Western
Union, said the company was working with the FBI and U.S. Secret
Service to trace the money sent through the service. It was also
telling its agents to be on the lookout for the extortion plot. She
declined to be more specific, saying "this is an ongoing law
A message seeking comment from another money-transfer service used,
St. Louis Park, Minn.-based, MoneyGram International Inc., was not
immediately returned Wednesday.
Kapin said the FBI found the call was made from a cell phone
registered to a Los Angeles phone number but was leased out from a
European company. Investigators determined the call had come from
somewhere in Portugal.
Callers also tried to extort money with calls to a US Bank in Boise,
Idaho, Wednesday morning; a Wal-Mart in Hutchinson, Kan.; bank branches
at Wal-Marts in Salem, Va., and Fairlawn, Va., on Tuesday; to a Vons
store in Vista, Calif., near San Diego, on Friday; and to two Giant
Eagle grocery stores in the Pittsburgh area, authorities said. The FBI
said it was also investigating similar incidents at a grocery store in
Orem, Utah, on Monday and a store in McAllen, Texas on Saturday.
Separately, the FBI is looking into bomb threats on college
campuses, including two in Ohio — the University of Akron and Kenyon
College. No explosive devices have been found. Law enforcement
officials said there was no evidence at this time linking the college
bomb threats with those at grocery and discount stores.
Kenyon, in Gambier in central Ohio, received six separate bomb
threats in a general admissions e-mail account between 6 a.m. and 9
a.m. Wednesday, college spokesman Shawn Presley said. Local and federal
authorities determined the threats to be a hoax and the school was not
evacuated as officials swept buildings searching for the bomb, he said.
The University of Akron closed classrooms, labs and offices in its
Auburn Science and Engineering building on Wednesday, after a secretary
in a dean's office received an anonymous e-mail that included a bomb