Fear. Intimidation. Panic.
You are right where they want you.
It’s your worst nightmare. Your child has been kidnapped.
While the virtual kidnapping scam might not be new, it’s making a strong comeback recently. You get a threatening call, telling you your loved one, usually your child, has been abducted. You are given specific instructions on how to pay the ransom so your loved one will be set free.
And so often, when it comes to our kids, emotion takes over, panic sets in, and we go into full protection mode. We’ll do whatever it takes to keep our kids safe.
Unfortunately, scammers know this and take advantage of it.
Just watch how Amy from Phoenix describes her own struggle when she received a virtual kidnapping call. Lindsey Reiser with azfamily.com
She admits “I don’t think that I am someone that’s gonna fall for scams like that. But…I’d go to the ends of the earth for my child.” And she’s not alone.
Don’t Threaten My Child
Many parents would agree with Special Agent Michelle Lee of the FBI’s San Antonio, Texas office when she says:
“You can threaten to kill me and that’s one thing, but you threaten to kill my child, that takes it to a new level.” Beth Dalbey with Patch
- You get a phone call from either your upset “child” (the victim) or an irate “kidnapper” (the caller).
- The victim is often screaming and asking for help. The caller is usually loud, threatening, cursing and demanding you act fast. You may even hear a child’s screams in the background (possibly a recording).
- The caller gives you specific instructions to follow or else they will hurt or kill the victim (often involving fingers). Go to the bank. Honk your horn so I know you are in the car. Withdraw money. Complete a wire transfer. NOW.
- After being emotionally and financially drained, you learn later on that your child was safe all along, and the whole thing was a hoax.
Watch FBI, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Chad Yarbrough explain further: Julie Grant with CBS Pittsburgh
How Does It Start?
With a cold call or with your personal information.
A cold call is when the scammer makes the calls at random, hoping someone will fall for their trick. The scam is more effective if it’s carefully directed at a particular person though; this is where your personal information comes in. And your information is easy to get.
Public Record Information
Much of your information is already available online. Just do a search for yourself, and all sorts of directories will pop up with your full name, family members’ names, your current and previous address, your age, your date of birth and more.
This is not information you have uploaded. It’s often public record information that has been automatically included in directories. This is called data scraping of public record information, and it’s commonplace.
Social Media Information
In addition to the information scoured from public records, you may have added some additional facts about yourself on social media. For example, Facebook allows you to tag certain people as your children, so depending on your privacy settings, everyone may be able to see your children’s names and photos.
Details of the Process
- The victim may get on the phone first, crying intensely, so you can’t recognize the voice. Then the caller may immediately take the phone from the victim and start yelling at you, often with much swearing and anger. Maybe they are hoping you won’t recognize it’s not your child’s voice or hoping you don’t notice it’s a recording.
- In your panic, you might think the victim’s voice is actually your son or daughter.
- A key part of this scam is to make you believe it’s actually your child.
- One way they do this is to count on you providing information. For example, you might call out, “Hannah, is that you!?” Big mistake. If the caller didn’t know your child’s name, they do now. They can use this new information to manipulate you further by saying things like, “We have Hannah.”
- Another way they make you believe the victim is your child is by describing them to you. Many times though, pictures are easily found online, so this is not 100% proof.
- Lastly, often, the caller’s number may be from out of the country or listed as “out of area,” but the caller may also have the ability to spoof your child’s phone number, so when you receive the call, the caller ID may make it look like your child is actually calling.
- Sometimes, the caller comes up with a story to help convince you the kidnapping is real. They might claim your child has witnessed a crime, and you need to pay “hush money,” or your child is being held by a Mexican drug cartel. Or they may say your child has been in a car accident with a gang member, and you have to pay for the damage immediately. Sometimes there is no explanation, and they tell you to “shut up” and stop asking questions.
- The caller may give you specific instructions on how to pay. They often use Google Maps or ask for your cross streets to guide you – making you think they can see you or that they are familiar with your hometown when in actuality, they may be in a different country.
- They insist you keep the call a secret and not go to the police. It is vital they keep you on the phone so you can’t contact your loved one or the police.
- Often, they might start with a high ransom, for example, $4,000. But when you say you can’t pay that much, or you are surprised at the amount, they quickly ask for less. The $4,000 may end up being $400.
- Sometimes they will ask you how much money you have in your account before they tell you the ransom amount.
- Typically, they choose an amount that many people can come up with in a short period of time – nothing too high.
- And of course, the money must be received immediately and untraceable: a wired money transfer through MoneyGram or Western Union – often to an off-shore account.
The caller may actually walk you through the process step-by-step as in the case of Steve Lawrence: Jackie Crea with Denver7
“The scammers spelled it out clearly for Steve. He would remain on the phone while instructing Steve to get away from everyone, withdraw as much money possible, and then make his way to a Western Union to wire it over.”
Watch Steve share his experience:
Unfortunately, if you fall for the extortion scam and actually pay, there is a chance the caller will say they never received the payment and ask you to pay again.
Although anyone can be a target of this type of scam, typically it has been directed towards people in wealthy neighborhoods, people with a family member who is traveling out of the country, people who are new to the U.S., and people who don’t speak English well.
What to Do
- Stay as calm as possible. Most likely it is a scam, and in most cases, the best course of action is to hang up and verify the location of your child.
- If you stay on the phone, immediately start locating your child. Call, text, check social media, etc. Many phones allow you to text, use social media apps and browse the web while you are already on a call.
- Speak slowly and calmly to the caller – no matter how aggressive the caller speaks.
- Ask the caller to repeat themselves. Tell them you need to write everything down. Tell them you need time to get the money together. This will buy you time while you contact your child.
- Ask, “How do I know they (do not say son or daughter!!) are okay?” Then ask to speak with the victim. If the caller allows it, listen closely to the victim’s voice. Is it really your child’s?
- Ask them questions only your child would know – information that is probably not posted online. For example, you might ask, “What is the color of your room?” or “What was your favorite stuffed animal when you were little?” or “What did you get last Christmas?”
- If the caller has called you from an unfamiliar phone number, ask the caller to let the victim call you back from the victim’s cell phone.
- Ask the caller for their personal cell number so you can use it to call the caller back in case you get disconnected.
- Do not argue with the caller – stay calm and business-like.
- Do not send the money. If you believe the kidnapping situation is real, call 911 and contact the police.
- Do not ever meet the caller in person or do a money drop.
It Might be a Scam If
- The phone number is coming from out of the country or listed as “out of area” (although with phone number spoofing, that’s not always the case anymore).
- The victim’s voice does not sound right, or it sounds like a recording.
- The call starts out with strong emotions and threats of extreme violence.
“Willy Zuniga, who is in charge of prosecuting kidnappings and extortion in Mexico City, said whenever there is crying and claims of immediate danger, it’s not a real kidnapping.” Emily Green with KQED News
- The caller refuses to let you speak to the victim. They might be afraid you will hear it’s not your child. Or you might notice it’s a recording, and they don’t have a victim at all.
- The caller doesn’t know the victim’s name without you giving away that information.
- The caller does not know your relationship to the victim – does not know whether the victim is your son, daughter, niece or some other relative.
For example, take the case of Mark Walker in Indiana.
In the Walker case, the angry caller had names and phone numbers but did not appear to know relationships.
“He kept saying ‘I’ve got Rachel. You know her! Don’t you? You know her!’ Walker said. “I think he was wanting me to identify her as my daughter, but I didn’t do that. I asked to speak to her and he said ‘No, only after you send the money.'” Bob Segall with WTHR Channel 13
- They speak loudly with extreme anger, yelling at you, cursing – insisting you act now – a strong sense of urgency.
- They insist you stay on the phone at all times and keep you on the phone as long as possible, until you pay the ransom.
- They ask you how much money you have before telling you the ransom amount.
- They start with a high ransom demand but quickly lower the ransom amount.
“According to Erik Arbuthnot, a special agent with the FBI and an expert in these crimes… In real kidnapping and hostage cases, the ransom demands are very high and the phone calls are short. In virtual kidnapping scams, Arbuthnot explained, the ransoms are relatively small – hundreds or thousands of dollars, not millions – and the offender’s main priority is to keep the victim on the phone as long as possible.” Sam Levin with The Guardian
- Remove information about yourself online (possibly with the help of a service).
- Lock down security on all your social media accounts.
- Discuss online privacy issues with your kids and help them with their social media privacy settings.
It Was a Scam – What Next?
- Hang up the phone.
- Contact your local police department and your local FBI office.
- Report it to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) or the FBI at 800-CALL-FBI.
What If It’s Real?
If you believe your child or anyone else has actually been kidnapped, immediately call 911 and your local FBI office.
According to the FBI, do not pay the ransom or meet with the caller in person.
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