The FBI is warning the public about virtual kidnapping scams targeting families across the country. Although virtual kidnapping scams have been going on for at least two decades, this scam has recently evolved to exploit new vulnerabilities.
Today's abundance of affordable international travel deals combined with the widespread use of social media has created a fertile environment for virtual kidnapping scams. Virtual hijackers scour the internet for targets by searching social media posts from international travelers. The scammers then contact loved ones of the target and claim to have taken the target hostage. Family members are promptly forced to pay a ransom to ensure the target's release. In reality, the target was never in physical danger. By the time family members realize they have been victimized, the ransom money is gone.
Virtual kidnappers can be very convincing, often posing as members of drug cartels or corrupt law enforcement officers. Victims can hear screaming in the background of a call, but virtual hijackers have been known to use recordings to sound more realistic. Virtual hijackers often request payment via bank transfer and pressure victims to act quickly.
FBI offers the following tips to help prevent virtual kidnapping scams:
Never post news about upcoming travel dates and locations online.
Discuss virtual kidnapping with family members before any trip.
Have a “password” that family members can request in an emergency to confirm that a loved one is truly in trouble.
Be careful giving financial information to strangers over the phone.
Characteristics 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 often unable to answer simple questions about targets, such as their appearance.
The ransom money is only accepted through a bank transfer service.
The callers request that the ransom funds be transferred to various people in various small amounts.
The FBI asks anyone who believes they are being targeted by a virtual kidnapping scam to immediately call 911 and request that the FBI be notified.