How to Avoid a Virtual Kidnapping Scam
“If you want to see your Clare again, don’t hang up,” says the voice on the other end of the call. You can hear a female voice screaming for help in the background. They’re obviously upset, and they sound like they’re in pain. It’s a tape recording and it’s not your daughter, but in the first few seconds of the call, it’s almost impossible to make sense of what you’re hearing. Has someone taken Clare?
This is how many virtual kidnapping calls start. The caller knows they have seconds to gain your attention and establish their credibility, and they do so by using your child’s name. Having made thousands of calls before, they know the emotional hot buttons to push in order to scare someone into listening and buying into their story.
Yet Clare is safe. In a virtual kidnapping, there’s no kidnapping at all. Instead, through trickery, threats, and intimidation, criminals extort money from the family members of their supposed kidnapping victims. A virtual kidnapping is nothing more than a means of extracting a ransom to secure the release of someone who was never in danger in the first place. A variation of the virtual kidnapping involves an email asking for the immediate wiring of funds to secure the release of a family member. Regardless of the contact method used, the kidnapping is a ruse, albeit an effective one.
So how do virtual kidnappers identify their victims, and what should you do if a stranger who claims to have captured a loved one calls demanding a ransom for their release?
Using a loved one’s name and playing a recording of the child supposedly screaming is a cruel yet effective tactic to stop a would-be victim from disconnecting a call. Such tactics play to a basic human instinct to protect those we love. If there is any doubt around whether their loved one is in danger, most victims will stay on the phone with the criminal. Nonetheless, here’s some guidance to help you determine the authenticity of a kidnapper’s call and then respond appropriately.
Slow the process to give yourself time to think
The quicker a criminal moves the process along, the less time you have to think and question the facts. Ask the criminal to repeat themselves to give you time to reach out to a loved one via social media, text, or phone. Obviously, the goal here is to confirm the kidnapping never took place and that your family member is safe.
Conduct a reverse search of the caller’s phone number
If you are near your computer, enter the caller’s number (make sure to include it in quotation marks), as previous victims may have shared it online. Also pay attention to the caller’s area code. While an actual kidnapper may call from a number outside of your immediate area, if the number corresponds to a state on the other side of the country, it calls into question the legitimacy of the call.
Ask for proof of life
Seasoned kidnappers know that family members often ask them to provide information to confirm their loved one is alive. Ask the caller for the answer to a question only the victim would know—something that isn’t readily available on the family member’s social media accounts—such as the location of a childhood scar or the name of their pet growing up. If the caller provides an incorrect answer or claims your family member is unavailable, consider hanging up.
Maintain a healthy degree of skepticism
As soon as you begin to doubt the caller’s story, they may resort to more aggressive tactics, including additional soundtracks of someone pretending to be your loved one in extreme pain. If any aspect of the caller’s story sounds generic or is just wrong, such as incorrect answers to questions only known to family members, end the call and notify law enforcement.
Write down the caller’s demands
If you are unable to reach your family member in the first few minutes of the call, write down the caller’s payment instructions for the ransom. Ask them to repeat the information, as doing so buys you more time to hear from your loved one. If you do not hear from your family member before the end of the call, resist the temptation to follow the criminal’s demands. Instead, call the police and provide them with the caller’s number and payment instructions. The police will quickly be able to tell you if the call is something to worry about.
Limit how much your family shares via social media
In bygone years, criminals had to do a lot of legwork to gather information before undertaking a virtual kidnapping scheme. Today, they need only visit a well-trafficked social media account to gain a bird’s eye view of an intended victim’s life, the members of their immediate and extended family, and snippets of information to use to convince others they’re the victim of a kidnapping. Either scrub all social media platforms of information that others could use for criminal intent or set the security settings to allow only immediate friends and family to see a complete social media profile.
Educate older family members on virtual kidnapping schemes
Criminals know that older family members often possess the financial means yet lack the technical skills and wherewithal to unmask a kidnapper as bogus. Without terrifying them in the process, let your family’s senior citizens know how virtual kidnapping scams work. Make sure they know how to contact you in the event someone calls or emails them to request a ransom.