The FBI and colleges across the nation are warning families of “virtual kidnapping” – a scam where the caller claims to have kidnapped the parent’s child and will only release them for a ransom.
Even though the FBI first warned against the scam in early 2015, the number of reported cases has increased in recent months. The majority of the cases reported during the past two months have been in Virginia, California, Texas and Arizona, although cases have been reported nationally.
The incident starts when the parents receive a phone call from a stranger who claims to have kidnapped their child. The stranger is then able to provide information on the child to make the parents think their son or daughter has really been kidnapped. This information is actually set to be publically available on social media sites. Some police reports note the parents were able to hear screaming, yelling or crying in the background. The only way to release the child is by paying the ransom.
The most recent reported case happened to the parents of a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Jay Gruber, police chief at Georgetown University, told the Associated Press, “[The scammers] really prey on people's fears, and in this case it's a very intense fear, thinking that your child's been kidnapped.” In the case of the Georgetown student, the parents contacted the student on social media and did not pay the ransom after verifying the student was in fact safe.
Not everybody is so lucky, however. FBI kidnapping expert Eric Arbuthnot told CBS News that several organizations are using this scam to make “thousands of dollars in ransom.” In the 2015 case of Wendy Muller, she received a phone call from an unknown number. After answering the phone, Muller heard what she thought was her 23-year-old daughters voice begging for help, followed by a stranger’s voice saying, “We have your daughter.”
The 59-year-old mother had no idea she was being scammed and thought her daughter’s life was at stake. For the next five hours, the scammers had Muller driving to various gas stations and convenience stores to wire money to a bank account in Mexico. Muller feared that if she tried to pass a note or flag someone down, the scammer would hear her and kill her daughter.
After transferring a total of $9,100, Muller got a text message. It was from her daughter. “Hey guys, look at what I was doing in class today,” the message read with a picture of a movie poster she made. After confirming her daughter was okay and that she was scammed, Muller hung up the phone. The scammers did not call back.
Virtual kidnapping is a difficult scam to stop. The phone numbers they call from are usually untraceable since they are blocked or private. Even when officials are able to trace a number, it is often times from a disposable phone. In addition, once one of the criminal organizations running this scam is brought down, it will most likely be quickly replaced by several others.
The best way to avoid being scammed is to be alert. A 2015 press release from the FBI New York field office says that if you receive one of the calls, you should slow down the conversation and ask for more time. While you are on the phone with the scammers, try to contact police as well as the person they have claimed to kidnap. If you find out your child, or whoever they are claiming to have kidnapped, is safe, simply hang up the phone and call the police.