FBI Alert as Virtual Kidnap Scams Rise

What FBI advises to reduce the risk of becoming a virtual kidnap victim: Internet Scambusters #685

Virtual kidnaps — extortion scams in which crooks pretend to have kidnapped a relative or friend and demand a ransom — are on the rise.

Scammers may pose as members of a Mexican cartel gang but, in reality, the scam could happen anywhere.

We can’t provide advice on how to respond to this dangerous threat, especially because it could be genuine. But we’re passing on FBI guidance on how they say you should respond to a suspected scam call.

Before we begin, you may want to spend a moment looking at this week’s most popular articles from our other sites:

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Now, here we go…


FBI Alert as Virtual Kidnap Scams Rise


WARNING: What follows is based on information and advice from the FBI. It does not constitute legal advice from Scambusters. If you suspect you or someone you know may be a victim of this crime, you should seek appropriate advice from qualified legal and/or law enforcement professionals.

The FBI is alarmed about the increased incidence of virtual kidnapping and has posted alerts about the crime.

Virtual kidnapping is a terrifying version of the well-known imposter scam, in which victims receive a phone call from a crook claiming to have kidnapped a relative and demanding immediate payment of a ransom.

In other cases, crooks have been known to operate a sort of virtual extortion scheme, a bit like a protection racket, when they threaten to kidnap or frame an individual if he or she doesn’t pay the protection money.

In one incident cited by the FBI, a famous “ironman” athlete competing in Mexico received a call in his hotel room in which he was ordered to pay them $10,000 or be framed for a drug-related crime, for which he would spend time in jail.

In this case, his wife became alarmed at his behavior and alerted police, who safely returned him home.

These types of crimes are all the more alarming because you may have no reliable way of knowing whether individual incidents are genuine or not.

“Although these extortion schemes have been around for many years, their numbers are on the rise, and the criminals’ tactics are becoming more sophisticated,” says the FBI.

“It’s big business for them and they do it well. Since the threat is continuing to evolve, the FBI wants to raise public awareness to help individuals from becoming victims.”

One reason why the crime is becoming more prevalent is the scammers’ ability to collect information about individuals and their activities through social networks like Facebook.

They know when an individual is going to be away from home and perhaps in a situation where they could be at risk — such as traveling to a foreign country.

In particular, information about visitors to Mexico has been used to contact their U.S. families, claiming they have been kidnapped by one of Mexico’s infamous drug cartels.

For example, crooks stole the phone of a young woman who was traveling in Mexico and used the contacts on her phone to call her parents, claiming they had kidnapped her.

They threatened they would cut off her fingers if they didn’t pay a ransom, making their threat more realistic by having a woman accomplice scream in the background.

The FBI doesn’t disclose what the outcome of this incident was but said the woman traveler was never in danger and knew nothing about the threats until she got in touch with her family later.

FBI Advice On What to Do

As we said earlier, it can be alarmingly difficult to tell if a kidnap call is genuine. Real kidnaps do happen, after all.

And, as we also warned at the beginning, we cannot and do not provide legal advice for these threat situations or any other scam. That can only come from a professional.

However, in its alert, the FBI recommends the following course of action if you get a kidnap call:

[Begin FBI guidance]

  • Try to slow the situation down. Request to speak to the victim directly. Ask, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
  • Ask questions only the victim would know, such as the name of a pet. Avoid sharing information about you or your family.
  • Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim if they’re seemingly allowed to speak.
  • Attempt to call, text, or contact the victim via social media. Request that the victim call back from his or her cell phone.
  • To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to get things moving.
  • Don’t directly challenge or argue with the caller. Keep your voice low and steady.

[End FBI guidance]

And if you become a potential extortion victim like the ironman mentioned above, FBI crisis experts suggest you should try to contact family or friends as quickly as possible and then get yourself to a safe place as soon as you can.

If you have any question about whether a ransom demand is a scheme or a legitimate kidnapping, the FBI says you should contact the nearest FBI office immediately.

“The FBI responds to all reports of U.S. citizens being taken hostage, whether virtual or traditional,” the Bureau adds.

“The virtual kidnappers are savvy and prepared, and one of our goals is to make sure the public is prepared as well.

“The criminals’ tactics are constantly evolving but the hallmark of any virtual kidnapping is always the same — preying on people’s worst fears.”

Alert of the Week

We’re hearing more and more complaints about phony product reviews online — because it’s not always easy to tell which ones are real.

If you’ve got a minute to spare (actually 1 minute and 16 seconds) check out the tips in this video from the government’s On Guard Online service.

That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.