Although they’ve been around for years, “virtual kidnappings” are back with a vengeance and there are fresh alerts from law enforcement authorities on the West Coast.
If you’ve never heard of them, virtual kidnappings are extortion scams done either online or by phone.
They typically involving the scammer contacting their intended victim falsely claiming to have kidnapped one of the victim’s relatives. The scam is successful if the victim wires “ransom” money to a bank account controlled by the scammer.
Virtual kidnappings: What you need to know to protect yourself
Virtual kidnappings have historically targeted families in Mexico, but police officials say the crime’s new targets are affluent parents in the United States.
“In 2015, the calls started coming in English,” FBI Los Angeles Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot says in an agency news release, “and something else happened: The criminals were no longer targeting specific individuals, such as doctors or just Spanish speakers. Now they were choosing various cities and cold-calling hundreds of numbers until innocent people fell for the scheme.”
Two recent incidents in Southern California have authorities there and elsewhere on edge.
For one family in affluent Laguna Beach, the call appeared to come from their daughter’s kidnapper.
“At 2:30 pm, the victim received a cellphone call from a suspect who stated he had kidnapped the victim’s daughter and was holding her and wanted $5,000 or he would kill her,” Sgt. Jim Cota told the Orange County Register.
“The suspect ordered the victim to stay on the phone with him throughout this incident,” Cota was quoted as saying. “The victim became fearful for his daughter and after briefly hearing a female scream into the phone stating she had been kidnapped, the victim went to his bank and withdrew $5,000.”
The father finally got a call from his daughter, who said that she was safe and had never been kidnapped — but the $5,000 was gone.
In another virtual kidnapping case a day later, a Laguna Beach woman received a call from someone saying that her daughter in Chicago had been abducted. Before the mother could wire money to a Mexican account, authorities were able to foil the scheme.
How to protect yourself against ‘virtual kidnapping’ scams
To safeguard yourself against these virtual kidnappings, here are some safety tips to live by:
1. If a criminal calls you about a ‘kidnapping,’ here’s the #1 thing to do
Don’t panic: Keep your wits about yourself. Speak in a calm voice and demonstrate composure. The crook is banking on you losing your cool so that they can manipulate you emotionally, then financially. Call the authorities immediately.
2. Don’t give them more information
Never divulge any information to the scammers, especially the names of loved ones — even if they appear to already know it. If you do, it will only confirm their information and serve to add validity to their scam. Criminals will try to glean new info from you to use against you. Don’t let them!
3. Watch what you share on social media
“We have had a number of calls from people who have lost money to scammers impersonating family and friends,” Clark says. “We have heard from others who were close to getting scammed or avoided the scam. And I want to warn you this is such a prominent scam right now, with people gathering information that you have posted willingly on social media.”
That means never, ever post birth dates, full names, or addresses on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other social platform.