You receive a phone call and hear the voice of someone you don’t recognize. They tell you they have your child and will kill them unless you pay a ransom – they direct you not to call police or you will never see your child again.
What would you do?
You tell the person on the other end of the phone not to hang up. You don’t want to disconnect with the one person that can reunite you with your child. You plead for your child’s safe return. “Please don’t hurt her. I will do whatever you want,” you say. And, you would!
They demand you go to the bank and wire a ransom of several thousand dollars. Do you call the police? Do you pay the ransom and hope the thug will return your child to you safe?
A child going missing is every parent’s worst nightmare, and for those who do have a missing child – living with such ambiguity is said to be the most traumatic of human experiences.
Sounds like a situation that only happens in the movies, right? Or, something that only happens to the wealthiest people in society.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has declared virtual kidnapping a violent crime and issuing warnings to parents that scammers are targeting parents and demanding a ransom in exchange for the safe return of children they kidnapped . . . well, virtually kidnapped. Police throughout the country are following suit, issuing warnings in their communities.
Police throughout the country are following suit, issuing warnings in their communities.
What is a Virtual Kidnapping?
A virtual kidnapping scam is an attempt to dupe victims into paying a quick ransom. The virtual aspect of the scam involves staging a scene on the phone to convince a person that a loved one has been kidnapped, following with a demand for ransom.
According to the FBI, “The success of any type of virtual kidnapping scheme depends on speed and fear. Criminals know they only have a short time to exact a ransom before victims unravel the scam or authorities become involved.”
Typically, the scam is executed by calling a victim claiming they have kidnapped a loved one, then demand a ransom in exchange for the loved one’s safe return.
Valerie Sobel is one such person who did receive a call from a person who said, “We have your daughter’s finger. Pay up or you’ll get the rest of her body in a body bag.”
Petrified, Sobel rushed to a money transfer location to pay the ransom, wiring $4,000 to the person who claimed to have kidnapped her daughter.
Valerie made many frantic phone calls to her daughter’s cell phone and after many hours had passed, her daughter Simone called her back totally confused but safe.
Basically, scammers call random numbers hoping to find a person who they can convince, while other times these scammers research Facebook and other social media platforms for names and numbers. If a scammer calls 100 people, chances are at least one will instantly pay.
Another way it may go down is a scammer calls you and you hear a child crying, “Mom, please help me.” Panic immediately sets in. You think it is your child. Then a man’s voice comes on the phone and calls you by your first name. This legitimizes the caller and you immediately ask them to just tell you what they want. What mother would not empty her bank account in exchange for her child’s safety.
If you don’t think you could become a victim, please read on.
Virtually Kidnapped Daughter
According to the Washington Post, Wendy Mueller lives in historic Leesburg, Va., and never thought she would become a victim of a virtual kidnapping scam.
One afternoon, while standing at her kitchen sink, she received a call from a number she did not recognize but answered.
She heard screaming and it sounded like her 23-year old daughter’s voice begging for help.
Then a man’s voice tells her, “we have your daughter.”
The caller told Mueller to put her phone on speaker, get her purse and phone charger and get into the car.
The man asked, “How much cash can you get right now?”
$10,000,” Mueller replied.
The man told her not to contact anyone for help or they would kill her daughter.
Mueller’s daughter attends college hundreds of miles away and she had no way of knowing her daughter was safe.
“They told me they were actually targeting someone else, someone they would be able to get a lot of money for. But they said my daughter intervened when they tried to grab him. And that sounded exactly like something she would do,” Mueller said.
“I was terrified,” Mueller continued. “They told me they wouldn’t hesitate to kill her.”
The caller had told Mueller he had hacked her phone and knew every move she was making. For hours, he told her to go to small stores and offices across Northern Virginia, where she wired the max amount of usually $1,900 each time to names and addresses in Mexico that the caller had given Mueller.
Mueller cross-crossed the state following his directions and making payments, until nightfall came.
Mueller had kept asking to speak to her daughter.
“They kept promising me: ‘As soon as you send the last one, you will talk to her,’” Mueller said.
The caller told Mueller he was a professional and part of a group of kidnappers – a huge organization – who do this all the time and kill.
The man told Mueller they had placed a set of headphones on her daughter so she could hear everything, so her daughter would know if her mother did anything to cause her death.
Mueller thought of stopping passersby but didn’t want to chance the kidnapper knowing.
“It was torture,” Mueller said.
As it turned out, her daughter was in class, safe and sound. Mueller had been scammed.
No one is immune
Thousands of families throughout the country have become targets of these malicious scammers.
According to FBI kidnapping expert, Agent Eric Arbuthnot, several organizations use these scams regularly to make money.
“Thousands of dollars in ransom,” said Arbuthnot. “And you’re talking about a criminal organization that is capable of doing more than one kidnapping at a time.”
According to Arbuthnot many of the cases have been happening on the West coast and along the border involving criminal organizations from Mexico, some claiming to be members of the cartel.
The FBI has seen recent increases in California, Nevada, New York, and Texas and increasing on the east coast.
Monroe Police Department in Connecticut said by using social media, scammers can identify a victim, look up relatives, and reference names of family members and friends to make the call appear legitimate.
FBI Supervisory Agent Christopher Johnson said his office in St. Louis, Missouri, deals with these types of crimes. “Scammers will often mention specific facts about the parent or victim, likely from information they were able to obtain online.”
Authorities say about one in five kidnapping cases are successful resulting in the criminal getting their ransom and not getting caught. While extortion has been around for decades, virtual ransom kidnapping calls are increasing around the country.
With this emerging scam, the FBI has launched a nationwide campaign to warn parents to fight back against “virtual kidnapping.”
If you receive a virtual kidnapping ransom call
Unlike traditional kidnapping schemes, a “virtual kidnapper” has not actually kidnapped anyone. According to Federal Bureau of Investigation, if you receive a call from an individual demanding a ransom for the safe return of a kidnap victim, it is suggested you quickly evaluate the following to determine if you are receiving a legitimate ransom call:
- Caller insists you stay on the phone.
- Call does not come from your child’s cell phone.
- Caller tries to stop you from contacting the kidnap victim.
- Call includes demand for ransom to be paid via wire transfer.
- Ransom amounts may decrease quickly.
Knowing what to do
Police say it is best to hang up the phone but:
- If you engage the caller, don’t call out your loved one’s name.
- Deliberately try to slow the situation down and ask to speak to your child directly.
- Ask “proof of life” questions like, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
- To gain confirmation if your child is an actual kidnapping victim, ask questions only your child would know such as the name of a pet.
- Listen very closely to the voice of the person speaking, if possible record the call.
- If possible, have someone else try to call your child’s cell phone, school, by text, social media, etc., to confirm their safety.
- To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to make arrangements.
- Don’t agree to pay a ransom, by wire or in person.
- Don’t deliver money in person.
- Immediately call your local FBI office and police.
According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), as of March 31, 2017, there were 86,618 active missing person cases in the FBI database, with 8, 792 entered as involuntary.
Experts agree that an actual kidnapping with a ransom demand is quite rare but all experts urge parents to be vigilant.
To read the FBI warning, please click here.