Virtual kidnapping scams have occurred in various forms for decades, but have become more sophisticated and frequent the past few years. Recently, scammers have been targeting celebrities and high profile individuals. In the past they also terrorized undocumented immigrants, hotel guests, and others.
While virtual kidnappings are becoming more prevalent, it is difficult to know how many take place, as victims are reluctant to report being duped. Moreover, they are afraid they may be targeted again if reported.
What is Digital Kidnapping?
Digital kidnapping is a scam in which an anonymous person calls someone and tells them a family member has been kidnapped.
The caller plays recorded screams in the background to trick the person into believing it is their family member screaming. They often call the alleged kidnapping victim by name and describe physical attributes to add to the impression they’ve really been kidnapped.
The caller usually says they are part of a drug cartel and threatens violence to the family member if the person does not pay up.
Fueled by panic and fear, the target of the scam pays the ransom fee, usually via wire transfer, Venmo, or cash.
How Scammers Pull Off Digital Kidnapping
Digital kidnapping scams wreak havoc on their victims, but they are not difficult to pull off, especially in today’s digital age. Many people post information about loved ones on social media, making it easy for scammers to find the details they need before making the call.
Successful scammers do a little more digging and call at times they know the family member of the target, supposedly being kidnapped, will be unavailable to answer calls. For example, if a scammer calls a parent and says they have kidnapped their son, the parent can call the son and the jig will be up. These scammers research the right time to call, i.e., when the son has a standardized test and his phone will be off, or is on a flight. That is when they call the parents.
Some scammers call from burner cells, while others use programs to make the call look as if it is coming from the kidnapped person’s phone.
How to Defend Yourself from Virtual Kidnapping Scams
Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to defend yourself from virtual kidnappings scammers. However, the FBI has listed several ways to minimize chances of being targeted:
● Avoid leaving a digital footprint – do not post photos and names of family members or reveal information about your location or travel plans. Never post phone numbers.
● Come up with a password for your family. If they are in trouble and need to call you, they must say the password, giving family members proof of identity.
● Talk about virtual kidnapping with your family so they are aware of the issue. This way, if it ever happens, you can have a clear head and understand that the chances of it being real are highly unlikely.
If you are targeted, try to get the caller to slow down or stall. Ask to speak to your family member while trying to contact them in a different way.
The FBI classifies virtual kidnappings as extortion. In reality, it’s much more nefarious than other extortion scams since it makes people fear for the lives of loved ones. That fear and panic is much harder to get over than the loss of money. While everyone hopes something like this will never happen, it’s important to be prepared if it does.