A new type of scam preys on parents’ protective nature toward their children in order to coax them into wiring high ransoms. To do this, scammers make a phone call claiming they’ve taken a victim’s child, and they threaten to harm the child unless parents pay ransoms ranging from $5,000 to $6,000. In each reported case so far, there was actually no abduction. The child was discovered to be safe, often just at school or out with friends, but usually only after the parent had already paid the ransom.
The FBI calls these instances “virtual kidnappings.” Within the past month, suspects have evolved from using Spanish and targeting immigrants in the United States to using English and calling families in wealthy communities, such as California’s Beverly Hills and Laguna Beach.
Residents in Laguna Beach made two separate fake kidnapping reports on March 7 and 8, both of which were referred to the FBI on March 13. In both cases, the scammers directed the victims outside of the city to withdraw and transfer money. In one case, the victim wired a total of $5,000, only to get a call from his daughter, who was safe in Laguna Beach, right as he was completing the last transaction. In another report, the victim was told her daughter had been taken while attending college in Chicago. The victim withdrew the money and called the police department, who intercepted her on her way out of town to transfer the money.
Scammers gather information about their target families, most likely from social media, and then leverage the concerned parents’ reactions of uttering the child’s name or other identifying information to further make victims believe the situation. Scammers have used recordings of children to make the lie more believable over the phone.
Authorities have reason to think these calls are coming from out of the country, and investigators have determined that the money paid in ransom is being transferred abroad by the scammers. Police have identified a pattern of scammers sending victims to the same Costa Mesa storefront, where they were instructed to send money to Mexico.
Hundreds of virtual kidnapping scams happen each year, federal law enforcement sources say, but the crime is heavily underreported. In order to protect yourself from such schemes, authorities have shared five critical steps you can take if you believe you are being targeted in a virtual kidnapping:
Refrain from disclosing personal information over the phone.
Reach out to the loved one who has been “kidnapped” to confirm that they are okay.
Contact authorities as soon as possible.
Additionally, make sure your social media security preferences are set to private so as to avoid leaking personal information into the public domain.