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Scam Alert: Virtual Kidnappings Are on the Rise

Written by: Anthony E. Stewart, Esq.

Your cell phone rings.  You look down, and to your delight, it’s your daughter.  She’s in college now and remembering to ‘give mom a call every once in a while’ seems to be an impossible task.  You quickly answer, and your delight immediately turns to terror: “We have your daughter,” a voice on the other side of the phone says.  “If you don’t pay her ransom, we are going to start cutting off her fingers.”  The caller knows personal details about your family, including where you live.  The caller ID says the call is coming from your daughter’s phone.  In the heat of the moment, there is no reason for you not to believe that your daughter’s been kidnapped.

However, more often than not, that’s not the case.  Instead, you have just been the latest victim of a terrifying scam – virtual kidnapping.  Although virtual kidnapping takes on many forms, it is always an extortion scheme—one that tricks victims into paying a ransom to free a loved one they believe is being threatened with violence or death. Unlike traditional abductions, virtual kidnappers have not actually kidnapped anyone. Instead, through deceptions and threats, they coerce victims to pay a quick ransom before the scheme falls apart.

How does this scam work?

While some of these scams come from pre-paid phones that are not registered a specific person, more advanced forms of the scam take advantage of caller ID spoofing.  Caller ID spoofing is when a caller deliberately falsifies the information transmitted to your caller ID display to disguise his or her identity.    Similar to phishing scams, caller ID spoofing makes it appear that the call is coming from a number you recognize.

Scammers take advantage of “data dumps” that occur after data breaches and their targets’ use of social media to find out personal details about their targets, and their targets’ friends and relatives.  Scammers then use this information to personalize the scam for a specific target.
Virtual kidnapping and other spoofing scams are only likely to get more complex due to the advancements in voice manipulation technology, which would allow the scammer to mimic the voice of the “kidnapped victim,” in addition to spoofing his or her phone number.

Don’t become a victim.

The success of any type of virtual kidnapping scheme depends on speed and fear.  To avoid becoming a victim, the FBI recommends that you look for these possible indicators:

 

  • Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone, insisting you remain on the line.
  • Calls do not come from the supposed victim’s phone.
  • Callers try to prevent you from contacting the “kidnapped” victim.
  • Calls include demands for ransom money to be paid via wire transfer to Mexico; ransom amount demands may drop quickly.

What to do if I receive a similar call?

 If you receive a phone call from someone demanding a ransom for an alleged kidnap victim, the FBI recommends the following:

  • In most cases, the best course of action is to hang up the phone.
  • If you do engage the caller, don’t call out your loved one’s name.
  • Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to your family member directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
  • Ask questions only the alleged kidnap victim would know, such as the name of a pet. Avoid sharing information about yourself or your family.
  • Listen carefully to the voice of the alleged victim if they speak.
  • Attempt to contact the alleged victim via phone, text, or social media, and request that they call back from their cell phone.
  • To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to get things moving.
  • Don’t agree to pay a ransom, by wire or in person. Delivering money in person can be dangerous.

If you suspect a real kidnapping is taking place or you believe a ransom demand is a scheme, contact your nearest FBI field office or local law enforcement immediately.