There’s a new crime that’s becoming a bigger and bigger issue for families across the U.S. called “virtual kidnapping,” and it’s insidious.
Here’s how it works, according to CNN: imagine that you receive a phone call. A voice you’ve never heard tells you that he has your son or daughter, and if you don’t follow their (the kidnapper’s) instructions to the letter, they’ll harm your child. The caller then directs you through a bizarre series of steps in order to get the money to them, all the while promising harm to your child if you mess up or if you try to alert the authorities.
Except they never had your child.
It happened to a North Carolina couple, who was scammed out of $1,500. In their case, the scammer called them, spoofing their son’s telephone number, then directed them to purchase two $750 pre-paid gift cards.
“If you call the police, I will know and kill him,” he threatened, according to the couple. “I have a scanner.”
When the ordeal was over, they drove to their son’s house to find him safe and sound, and certainly having never been kidnapped.
Matthew Horton, the FBI’s international violent crimes unit chief, says that “virtual kidnappings” are on the rise, for a variety of reasons.
“It’s a quick way to make money — and it’s a lot easier to conduct a virtual kidnapping than a real one.”
It’s actually quite easy to carry out a virtual kidnapping. Software that you can use to spoof a phone number is cheap and easily available. Look around your intended victims’ social media accounts, and you can quickly gather up enough identifying information about them to make a convincing case. In some cases, scammers have even used sound effects of screams to convince the victims that they (the kidnappers) have their child.
The FBI believes that most of these calls originate in Mexican prisons. Prisoners bribe guards for cell phones, look up the area codes of affluent neighborhoods, and start randomly calling victims, hoping someone will fall for it.
So what should you do if you’re the target of such a scam? First of all, says the FBI, try to stay calm and keep a clear head. The scammers are banking on you panicking and acting out of fear. Second, try to get the scammers to provide you with some information that only the supposed victim would know, such as their middle name or Social Security number. Failing that, while the scammer has you one the phone, try to have another family member (if available) try to contact your son or daughter to make sure they’re actually OK.