The FBI is warning that a virtual kidnapping ransom scam is once again taking advantage of unsuspecting Americans. According to the top law enforcement agency, a virtual kidnapping occurs when someone receives a phone call telling them that their family member has been kidnapped. Unbeknownst to the person receiving the call, there is no actual kidnapping. But the scammers threaten the victim until they are able to extort ransom money from them.
The FBI says that although no one is actually kidnapped in these schemes, the experience is extremely traumatic for the victim. The fake kidnappers typically threaten to physically assault the victim if they contact the police. Apparently, families will send the criminals thousands of dollars on average before they ever make a call to law enforcement.
“It came up as mom’s cell, her picture and her ring tone. Usually, she doesn’t call me early in the mornings so I thought something must be wrong. I need to answer this,” said Sarah of Savannah, Georgia in a conversation with radio station WTOC. Sarah received one of those terrifying calls and did not want her real name used in the media.
Investigators in Chatham County said the call to Sarah was made using a technology called spoofing. That’s where the scammer has the cell phone numbers of two people who know each other — in this case Sarah and her mother. The criminal who contacted Sarah used spoofing to make it look like Sarah’s mom was calling her.
When Sarah picked up the phone, she heard muffled crying. She thought it was her mother, and that someone had their hand over her mouth. She kept asking her mom what was wrong, what was happening. That’s when a male voice came on the line. He told Sarah he would blow her mom’s head off if she didn’t send him $1500 right away. He told her if she called the police, her mom was as good as dead.
That’s what these guys do, says the FBI. They use all kinds of techniques to instill fear, panic and urgency in the victim in order to pressure them into making a hasty decision. Indeed, Sarah agreed to send the “kidnapper” the money.
The caller wanted to receive the payment via PayPal, but Sarah didn’t have an account, so he guided her through the transaction, all the while threatening to kill her mother. But as soon as Sarah sent the money, the call was disconnected.
The FBI says a lot of times these calls will come from outside the United States, and the scammers will pretend to be part of a drug cartel or corrupt law enforcement. The callers will often give the victim instructions to follow in order to ensure that they get to see their family member again. In Sarah’s case, there were no such instructions. The caller simply hung up.
“I didn’t know if he did shoot her in the head. I called her cell phone back and it went straight to voicemail,” Sarah said. “And then I called her fiancé who lives with her and he answered the phone. … I said, ‘Is mom okay?’ He said, ‘Yeah, she’s in bed.’ And I was like, what is going on?”
That’s when Sarah realized she’d been scammed. Lucky for her, she was able to stop the transaction and keep her $1500. Then she called police.
How to Protect Yourself
How often are victims able to hold on to their money? And can law enforcement really do anything about these anonymous “kidnappers?”
“So a lot of times these virtual kidnappings are originating inside prisons in Mexico and they are using cell phones, throw away cell phones so it’s very hard to track them,” said FBI public affairs specialist Kevin Rowson to WTOC.
“The odds are if you fall victim and this is sad to say. The odds are you aren’t going to get your money back. And it’s going to be very difficult for us to track them or pin them down.”
Rowson advises potential victims of this scam to be “really conscious and aware” of the fact that the kidnapping threat you’ve received is just not real. How do you do that? Start by slowing down the process. Remember, the caller will try to get you to make a hasty decision by scaring you and making you panic.
Then ask to speak to your loved one. And ask about something personal that the scammer couldn’t possibly know, like what is your family member’s birth date or what is a unique physical characteristic they might have. And, perhaps most importantly, if the caller refuses to answer, see if you can get someone you know to try to contact your “kidnapped” family member so you can find out if they’re really just fine.
“Looking back, you learn a lot about yourself and how you react to something like that, and when you are in that much fear,” Sarah told WTOC. “I probably should have questioned him more like what’s my mom’s name or can I hear her voice? But in that moment, all you want to do is save her life.”
Protect Yourself — Learn about other scams.