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NOT TAKEN: FBI Warns About Virtual Kidnapping Scams Targeting Family Members on Spring Break

03-21-2022
Virtualkidnapping

The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Chicago Division is warning the public about virtual kidnapping scams in Illinois and across the country. 

Even though virtual kidnapping scams have occurred for at least the last 20 years, this type of scam has recently evolved to exploit potential victims through new vulnerabilities. 

Spring Break is a perfect time for con artists to try this scam due to the number of people traveling in and around the U.S. The many affordable international travel deals combined with the popularity of social media have created a fertile environment for virtual kidnapping scams, according to the FBI. Virtual kidnappers scour the Internet for targets by searching for social media posts by international travelers. 

These scammers then contact the target's loved ones claiming to have taken their family member hostage. Often times they'll have someone screaming in the background, pretending to be your child. Family members are coerced into paying a ransom quickly to ensure their loved one's release. In reality, their family member was never in physical danger. 

By the time the family members realize they have been victimized, the ransom money is gone.

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"Innocent victims are tricked into believing that their loved ones are in danger and the hopelessness that they feel as they scramble to secure what they think will lead to their ultimate release," FBI of El Paso Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey R. Downey told KVIA-TV.

Virtual kidnappers can be very convincing, often representing themselves as members of drug cartels or corrupt law enforcement. Victims may hear screams in the background of a call, but virtual kidnappers have been known to use recordings to sound more realistic. These virtual kidnappers often request payment via wire transfer and push victims to act quickly.

The FBI Chicago gave the following tips to help prevent people from being taken by virtual kidnapping scams:

  • Never post news of upcoming travel dates and locations online.
  • Discuss the problem of virtual kidnapping with family members prior to any travel.
  • Have a "password" that family members can ask for in an emergency to confirm that a loved one is really in trouble.
  • Be wary of providing financial information to strangers over the phone.

The indications of a virtual kidnapping include:

  • The calls may not come from the kidnapped target's phone.
  • Callers go to great lengths to keep victims on the phone.
  • Callers are usually unable to answer simple questions about targets such as what they look like.
  • Ransom money is only accepted via a wire transfer service.
  • Callers request that the ransom funds be wired to multiple people in several small amounts

If you are contacted, the FBI says to hang up on the caller and report the incident to your local law enforcement officials.

If you have been a victim of this crime, call the local FBI field office near you. Click HERE for some helpful phone numbers.

Scam artists have tried to specifically target parents for years, sometimes while their kids are even at school. 

As CBN News reported in 2019, parents were being warned by the FBI and local authorities about two "virtual kidnapping" cases in California in which the suspects demanded a large ransom payment for the return of their child. 

As it turns out, no one was abducted in either case. But it didn't stop one father from Laguna Beach, California from paying $5,000 to the suspect.  

The Laguna Beach police also reported another woman was contacted a day later by a suspect who said her daughter had been kidnapped while attending college in Chicago. The parents were told to wire the ransom money to an account, using the same location in Costa Mesa to make the wire transfer.  

"Once the mother pulled out the money, she called the police department," Sgt. Jim Cota of the Laguna Police Department told The Orange County Register. "Police officers stopped her on her way out of town and were able to stop the transfer of money."

At the time, the FBI believed the scam calls were coming from outside the U.S. 

"We do believe that phone calls are coming from out of the country, including Mexico, and that money transfers have been sent out of the country," FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller told NBC News.

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