young woman trying to pay her bills

What is virtual kidnapping?

Virtual kidnapping is on the rise, adding to the list of ways criminals attempt to scam you out of your money. Virtual kidnappers call and claim to have your children, while making ransom demands for the child’s safe return. Parents who decide to pay the ransom, which can range from $600 to $1,900, will only find out after paying that their child is safe.

Virtual kidnappers will typically target parents whose children do not live at home (i.e. divorced parents, parents with children in college). Scammers can use many methods to learn more about their victims – from social engineering scams to dumpster diving for personal information. However, social media pages have made it even easier for scammers to find the information they’re looking for.

Some victims reportedly heard muffled screams and cries in the background during their calls. Other victims noted that the scammers attempted to impersonate their child’s voice to further convince them to pay the ransom demand. The FBI issued official statements in regard to virtual kidnapping in areas like the Rio Grande Valley and New York City. In addition, the FBI also stated that Nevada and California have seen recent increases in these scams.

What should you do?

For parents whose children live away from home, stay in contact with your child via text, phone call or social media. Be sure to monitor your children’s social media pages, encourage them to turn on their privacy settings, and look for anyone that may be paying too much attention to their posts. Ask your child if he or she has received messages from anyone who has asked questions about their personal information. Always communicate with your kids about what is safe and not safe to post about themselves online, and be sure to monitor what you post about your children as well.

If you receive a call from someone that claims to have your child, follow these tips to avoid being scammed by virtual kidnappers:

  • Slow down the process. Ask the alleged kidnappers if you can speak to your loved one directly. This will buy some time so that you can investigate whether or not your child has actually been kidnapped.
  • Reach out to your children. Attempt to call, text or contact your children via social media. Let your children know about the possibility of this scam so that they are aware that you may be calling them to confirm their safety.
  • Ask about personal details. Scammers can access a lot of personal information about their victims in a number of ways. If the alleged kidnappers allow you to “speak” with your loved one, listen to the voice carefully. Ask questions that only your child would be able to answer to determine whether or not the call is a scam.
  • Validate the number calling you. The FBI states that virtual kidnapping calls will usually come from outside the contiguous U.S., especially Puerto Rico. Be particularly wary if you receive a call from these area codes: 787, 939, 856.