FBI Warns of Virtual Kidnapping Scam

Category: Security

The FBI has issued an updated bulletin warning the public about the rising threat of “virtual kidnapping scams,” in which unseen bad guys call a victim and demand ransom for an allegedly kidnapped loved one. Here's what you need to know...

Be Aware of New Kidnapping Scams

"We have your daughter... she's in a van... and you've to got pay $2000 by wire transfer NOW, or else..." Scenarios like these, targeting parents and grandparents, are becoming more common, and more sophisticated.

The FBI bulletin warns people to be aware of a new type of bogus kidnapping scam. While no one has actually been kidnapped, the crooks often use co-conspirators to imitate the “hostage’s” voice and even scream in fake agony to convince the victim to pay up right this very minute.

The crooks go to great lengths to keep the victim on the phone and talking, so that he/she doesn’t have time (or even think) to try to contact the alleged hostage via another phone, social media, email, etc. They also insist on payment of a ransom via a wire transfer, money order, or some other untraceable and unrecoverable payment method.

FBI warning

Yes, this scam actually works. With no trouble at all, I found two news reports in which victims paid the ransom demanded, only to learn later that the “hostage” was never in any danger. Both cases happened near the Texas-Mexico border, but would such a scam “play in Peoria?”

The FBI says yes. Up until sometime in 2015, most of these calls originated from Spanish speakers in Mexican prisons, where inmates would bribe guards for cell phones. But more recently, the scam has evolved so that people anywhere in the USA could be potential victims. Using English, and targeting people across the country, the FBI says kidnap scammers victimized over 80 people in in California, Minnesota, Idaho, and Texas.

Scammers can also glean details from the parent or alleged hostage’s social media accounts, such as names and ages of children, and other details that can be used to convince the victim that their son, daughter, or grandchild is in danger. Too many Facebook users like to announce that they’re going on vacation, even posting the names and photos of the hotels they’ll be staying at and other details that can help a scammer convince a victim they really did kidnap a loved one.

The Guardian newspaper published an article on virtual kidnappings which included an account of a Los Angeles area mother who was duped into believing her young daughter was taken hostage.

Tracy Holczer was driving with a friend to their writers’ group in a suburb of Los Angeles when she got a terrifying call on her cellphone from a number she didn’t recognize. A hysterical girl was screaming on the other end of the line. “Mommy, please help me! Someone grabbed me, and I’m in a van. I don’t know where I am!”

A Tough Call...

What would you do - laugh and hang up? Most parents would err on the side of believing. “It sounded like my daughter,” recalls Ms. Holczer. Of course, all hysterical young girls sound alike, and scammers practice sounding hysterical and young. But terrified parents are not thinking very rationally. It turned out that Ms. Holczer’s daughter was safely enjoying a youth summer camp; she was not kidnapped and was never in danger.

The FBI advises everyone who receives a “kidnapping” phone call to keep calm and slow the rapid-fire conversation down. Repeat everything the caller says, claiming that you want to get it right. Say you need to find a pen and paper to write down instructions. Don’t call out your loved one’s name, because the scammers may not know it.

Meanwhile, you should be waving to anyone nearby for help; use that pen and paper to ask them to contact your loved one by phone, text, or social media, to make sure they are not in danger. When you're certain of that, hang up.

And, of course, call the police as soon as possible. It’s vital to track the locations of these criminals, and the sooner police can get on the job of tracing the “kidnapping” call you received, the safer everyone will be.

Please feel free to post your comment below...

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Most recent comments on "FBI Warns of Virtual Kidnapping Scam"

Posted by:

09 Feb 2018

If it ever happens to me, as in "We have your daughter", I'll say "You mean John?". Perhaps confuse them.
I teach an iPhone Class to Senior Citizens and one of my topics is security and scammers. I'll add this to my repertoire. Right now, I have "so and so is in a Mexican jail and will be tortured" (yeah, let him rot, the scumbag), the bank account is compromised email (don't click on anything just delete), Microsoft says your PC is compromised (I have an iPhone - does it run Windows?) and the good old Nigerian Prince type scam (Dear Friend - your name is similar to the deceased - the name was "Friend"?)

Posted by:

09 Feb 2018

A scam like this was perpetrated on my grandmother, using my son as "bait." Fortunately I was able to stop her before she paid anything. This happened 35 years ago in Miami. Nothing new under the sun, I guess.

Posted by:

09 Feb 2018

As Jane posted, this is a variation of the "grandparent scam" that has been going on for years. There have been numerous articles in newspapers about it. If you Google "grandparent scam" you will find stories. Typically grandparents get a call that a grandchild is in jail and needs money for bail. The child supposedly couldn't reach his parents and reached out to his grandparents. My own mother (in her 90s) got one of these calls a few years ago. Fortunately she called me and I called my son who was perfectly fine. See https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/sandiego/press-releases/2012/beware-of-the-grandparent-scam

Posted by:

Jay R
09 Feb 2018

My phone is capable of 3 way calling. While I go get a pencil and paper, I will call the victim and, with any luck, offer to let the "kidnappers' talk to their victim. Or may engage in some other nonsense.

Posted by:

09 Feb 2018

I got a call once, supposedly from my "grandson," saying he was in the hospital and needed money right away. When I declared that he must be a miracle because I have no children, the caller immediately hung up.

Posted by:

09 Feb 2018

I have taken care of all of these problems by not answering my phone when it's a call from an unknown number. If someone wants me bad enough they can leave a message and I'll call back if warranted.

Posted by:

09 Feb 2018

It is always good to have a prearranged "identifying" word or phrase. If that word or phrase cannot be given, it is definitely a scam. IF it is given, some personal questions (where was last year's vacation, what is your uncle's/aunt's name,etc.) should be asked for positive identification (the expected response could be real or also prearranged).

Posted by:

Top Squirrel
09 Feb 2018

It may be hard to think of at the moment, but I would favor tying up the scammers in knots until they hang up.

To "we have your grandchild" I'd ask, "Really? Some of them I'd be willing to pay you to get rid of. Which one you got?"

"Sorry, don't recognize the voice. I have several grandchildren. Which one have you got?" If they give a female name, you can say, "sorry, I have only grandsons. Nice try, though." And vice versa with granddaughters.

As for the hospital gambit, tell them to give the kid a message to "get out of there immediately; you know you're not insured and I'll be damned if I pay those doctors another nickel!"

To a request to send bail money to keep the kid out of jail on a drug or similar charge:
"Tell him he's where he belongs and I won't help him get out until he can prove to me that he's no longer a lawbreaker. And meanwhile, tell him not to bend over in the shower as long as he's still got such a cute little tushy. And by the way, which grandson is it? And who the hell are you?"

Work out your answers before the fact.

If you keep getting these calls, it may pay to write up a card with snappy answers and place it within reach of the phone.

And please know that if there is a real medical emergency, a person will get treatment without any regard for money. They start dunning you only AFTER you're stabilized and out of danger.

Posted by:

09 Feb 2018

When the old answering machines with two tapes in them first hit the market, some of us saw them as the perfect solution for screening calls 24/7. Family and friends quickly learned to leave a message and we'd get right back to them - all others need not bother.

As the telemarketing calls increased and we switched to digital voicemail, all the better. It's simple, cheap protection against brain gas. While most scammers won't waste time leaving a message, the few that do find that it's a lot harder to fast-talk or pressure people into doing something stupid, when there's no one on the other end of their nuisance call.

Posted by:

09 Feb 2018

The sad part is these scams must work because they keep coming. I wonder how many pay and then too embarrassed to admit they fell for it.

Posted by:

09 Feb 2018

A nasty variation of this scam has happened when a well dressed man/lady, asks to borrow a woman's cell phone to call their spouse and then proceeds to call the woman's husband (Honey in her contact list) for ransom and uses the victim's cell phone as proof that they have her.
Never loan your cell phone to strangers!

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