ZEPHYRHILLS — Christina Potwin’s daughter walked out of their Zephyrhills home on Aug. 11 following an argument over a cellphone.
Potwin reported her 15-year-old daughter, Jasmine, missing that day, but when her daughter didn’t return home, Potwin turned to social media. She put the information on her Facebook page on Aug. 12 and then changed her settings, making her profile public for anyone to see.
The next day, a stranger contacted Potwin on Facebook claiming to know where the teen was. Only, the person wanted $300 for that information.
“I was thinking she was hitchhiking and I thought someone had her,” Potwin said. “I was very, very distraught.”
Potwin called the Pasco Sheriff’s Office to report the scam.
“When I answered the phone, I couldn’t even make out what she was saying,” Pasco detective David Boyer said. “I knew she was crying. It actually scared me. I was very nervous, and I don’t have kids, but I felt the pain through the phone.”
Potwin’s neighbor had to take over the call to relay information to Boyer.
Authorities are warning parents to be careful of what information they post on Facebook. If a child goes missing, contact authorities first, and share information only with a trusted group of friends.
“It’s great to be connected to people, but at the same time, from sheriff’s office standpoint … we’re very cynical as to what criminals will use that information for,” Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said. “We just say be extremely careful.”
In 2012, Pasco Sheriff’s Office detectives investigated 742 missing persons cases. Of those, 559 were runaways. It’s estimated there are 1.6 million missing person cases nationwide. More than 500,000 involved children under the age of 21, according to the National Crime Information Center.
Pasco detectives took over the private exchange on Facebook between Potwin and the person using the screen name Christian Mills. Mills revealed he wanted a payment wired to Nigeria.
That tactic got responses from across the nation, she said. Potwin said she regrets not allowing that matter to stay just within her circle of friends. “I hope that (other parents) learn that there’s mean people out there (wanting to) hurt them more than they’re already hurting,” Potwin said, fighting back tears. “And I hope it doesn’t happen to anybody else because it’s the worst nightmare.”
Jasmine returned home on Aug. 13. She had never left Zephyrhills.
Potwin said the best thing that has come of this is a stronger bond with her daughter. Additionally, Potwin is now closer to Jasmine’s friends.
These types of scams are part of the reason the sheriff’s office has stopped posting photos of missing children on its Facebook page.
Boyer said it is unlikely the suspect will be caught due to his location.
“Probably one of the worst things you can experience as a parent is not knowing where your child is,” Nocco said.