A growing crime that feeds off every parent’s worst nightmare
Imagine you said goodbye to your child one morning and watched them go off to school before heading to your office. It’s the same routine you follow every day. But halfway through your morning the unthinkable happens – you get a call telling you your child has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. You hear screaming in the background. You panic. The caller asks you to stay on the line and demands that you wire them the ransom demand immediately, otherwise you will never see your child again. You do as they ask, because what choice do you have? Only once the money has gone, the caller has hung up, and you are able to check on the whereabouts of your child do you realize that you have been scammed. Your child was safe and well all along.
A growing crime
So-called ‘virtual kidnapping’ is on the rise. What started out as a crime that was limited mostly to parts of Central and South America and Asia is now on the increase throughout the United States, particularly in the nation’s most affluent neighborhoods. It is very difficult to put actual figures on the number of people who have succumbed to this heinous crime, as many victims are too embarrassed to report it. Yet there can be no doubt that this scam is gaining ground and more and more remorseful parents are speaking out in the hopes of saving others the heartbreak they went through.
Social media fueling the crime
As with many other crimes, including actual kidnapping, social media and GPS tracking are unwittingly aiding and abetting virtual kidnappers. Virtual kidnapping is an easy crime to carry out. All it requires is a little investment of time on behalf of the ‘kidnappers’. Criminals hack into and monitor social media and victims’ cellphones to find out if they would be a good target and what their usual daily routine is. Getting hold of phone numbers and information on social media is all too easy for these criminals. Some virtual kidnappers don’t even bother putting the time and effort into monitoring people, they simply ‘cold call’ numbers until a victim bites. All the virtual kidnappers have to do is sound convincing and exploit the biggest fear of every parent. It’s as easy as that.
Spotting a virtual kidnapping scam
When someone calls you and claims to have kidnapped your child, your natural instinct will be to believe the caller and do everything in your power to get your child back safe and sound. So how will you know if you are being scammed? According to the FBI, there are some tell-tale signs:
- Multiple phone calls from an unknown number
- Callers do not use the ‘kidnapped’ victim’s phone
- Callers do whatever they can to keep you on the phone (in an actual kidnapping, the abductor will usually try to get off the phone as soon as possible to avoid being traced)
- Callers prevent you from calling or locating the supposed victim
- Ransom money is only accepted in the form of a wire transfer
- Callers do not allow you to speak to the ‘kidnapped’ victim
- Ransom demands are usually smaller than in cases of actual kidnapping
What to do if you get that call
Victims of the virtual kidnapping scam report that it is one of the worst things that can happen to a parent. The feelings of panic and helplessness are difficult to describe and many victims of this crime report suffering panic attacks, nightmares and wariness of strangers long after the (attempted) extortion is over.
To avoid becoming a victim of this scam, there are a number of things you can do:
- Try to remain calm and slow the situation down
- Do not share any information about your family during the call and don’t use the alleged victim’s name
- If you hear the victim’s voice or screaming in the background, try to ascertain if it really is your child
- Attempt to contact the ‘kidnapped’ victim via phone, text, messaging app or social media to see where they are and if they are safe
- Ask to speak to the victim
- Ask questions that only the victim would know
- Ask the caller to call back using the victim’s phone
- Try to buy time by repeating the caller’s demands and telling the caller you need to write things down or need time to complete the transaction
- Don’t challenge or argue with the caller
- If you don’t want to risk ending the call, drive to the nearest police station
Raising awareness & reporting the crime
Victims of virtual kidnapping are mostly completely unaware that this crime exists. They react as any parent would when faced with a potential threat to their child. Virtual kidnappers take advantage of parents’ fears and most of the time they get away with it. If you have been a victim of this form of extortion, it is very important that you report it to the police, who can try to trace the criminals. Reporting also helps to raise awareness so that other parents do not have to face this terrifying situation.