Virtual kidnapping: A new twist to an old crime

Imagine hearing a voice on the phone demanding $10,000 for the safe return of your child. Don’t hang up. Get the money now. You dropped your child off at school this morning as usual—but are you sure she’s safe?

Any parent would be terrified to receive a call like this. Luckily for a New Jersey family, local law enforcement acted fast to check in on the victim’s daughter and confirm that she was safe at school. She was in no danger, and her parents didn’t pay the scammers who were claiming to have abducted her. Many parents, who pay the “ransom” in a panic, aren’t so lucky.

These “virtual kidnappings,” in which scammers use fear and threats over the phone to manipulate people into wiring them money, were first noted by the FBI in the Southwest border states. However, the scam has now spread to other areas of the country, with families in California, Minnesota, Idaho, Texas, and elsewhere falling victim.

Do you know enough to educate your community about this growing problem?

The perpetrators are using increasingly sophisticated tactics—like extensive online reconnaissance using social media and other aspects of a person’s digital footprint—to convince victims that a loved one is being held hostage.

According to the FBI, indicators of this crime include:

  • Callers going 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.
  • Calls demand for ransom money to be paid via wire transfer.
  • Callers will try and prevent you from contacting the alleged kidnapping victim.

Victims should report these scams to their local police and file an online complaint at IC3.gov.

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