Tri-State woman reports ‘crazy’ scam involving missing brother, brain-injured toddler

Sister of missing man beloved she was victim of kidnapping scam

CINCINNATI (FOX19) - A Cincinnati woman believes a scammer is trying to use her brother’s disappearance to get money she raised for a hospitalized toddler.

Paula Sylla says she has not seen her brother, Robert Russell, for two years. The 45-year-old battled addiction, Sylla said, and vanished in 2018.

“It’s been horrible not knowing where he’s at," Sylla said.

For Sylla, the pain of missing her brother has not faded, but she explains she has been forced to focus her attention on something else. Her great niece Bailey is in the hospital fighting for her life after an accidental near drowning last year.

While at Bailey’s bedside last week, Sylla says she started getting text messages from a number she did not recognize. The person on the other line, Sylla says, claimed to be holding her brother hostage.

“They made demands, saying, you know, that they had my brother," Sylla said. "They had kidnapped him, and they wanted the money, or they were going to kill him.”

Sylla says the person who was texting her even sent her what appeared to be a fake, edited photo of her brother with duct tape across his mouth.

“At first, I mean it’s my brother’s face with duct tape on it, so I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it is my brother. I’m scared,'” Sylla said. "And then when I met with Cincinnati police, they were like, ‘Ok look at the picture, these are photoshopped.’”

The person demanded a $7,000 ransom, Sylla says, which is the same amount of money she and others have raised through a GoFundMe for Bailey’s critical care.

The messages stopped when Sylla told the person that she cannot access that money.

“It was scary. I mean not only are these people trying to exploit money from a sick child, they are also telling me they were going to kill my brother if I didn’t send them money right away," Sylla said.

Sylla provided FOX19 NOW with the phone number she says the messages came from. FOX19 NOW called the number and heard a recorded message that said in part: "The text now subscriber you are trying to reach is not available.”

Sylla says she believes the whole ordeal was a scam. It would not be the first reported kidnapping scam. The FBI put out a warning about similar scams earlier this year.

More than anything, Sylla says she wants others to be careful.

“It’s crazy. I just don’t understand what would possess someone to be so cruel and heartless to do something like that," Sylla said. "Be aware of what you’re putting out there, what information you’re putting out there for everybody to see.”

Sylla believes whoever was targeting her got information about her from social media.

Cincinnati police says the incident does sound like a scam and advise anyone dealing with something similar to report it.

For tips on how to protect yourself, visit the FBI’s website.

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