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.
How easy would it be to kidnap a child in a crowded place? Maybe the park, walking home from school or even sleeping in their own bedroom. Over again, we see parents of missing children making pleas for the safe return of their children on the news. We see the Amber Alerts and Facebook posts and immediately picture our own children’s faces, thinking “What if it happened to me?” A common reaction to something so traumatic.
A young child becoming the victim of a predator is every parent’s worst nightmare, but the fact is, it is happening every day to parents throughout the country and our own fears do not wane just because our children are getting older.
I am a parent of four grown children and a mother who has worked in the field of missing persons for over 25 years. Every day I interacted with parents who were desperately searching for their missing child. Their pain unimaginable. Very quickly I realized the crime of abduction does not discriminate based upon a child’s age.
Commonly, we think of small children when we hear the word kidnapping and we think as our children age, they are safer, but the fact is, they can become even more vulnerable as they approach adulthood.
While teenagers are venturing out, without the protective eye of a parent, there is even more chance they can cross paths with a potential kidnapper. It is our responsibility as parents to guide our children throughout their lives and hopefully provide them with some tools that will keep them safe.
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), approximately 800,000 children are reported missing each year in the United States. That number accounts for nearly 2,000 per day.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates a relatively small number, approximately 115 of those missing children are abducted by strangers and listed as an “involuntary” abduction in the national database of missing children. However, this number does not account for children (to include teens), who are listed in the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC) in various categories such as “Endangered Missing,” “Runaways” or “Other.” Many of these disappearances are considered “long-term” with more than a year having passed with no resolution or explanation as to how or why the child disappeared. The fact is, we just don’t know, therefor accurate statistics impossible.
One thing we all can do as parents is prepare our children. Much of the following information and tools have proven to save lives.
- Communicate with your children
Predators do not look like the “Boogieman.” Strangers look like everyone else. Children need to understand that everyone is a stranger, even women and seniors. It is not about being unsociable, explaining this is about being cautious.
- Agree to a code word
Strangers have no business asking a child for directions or a lost pet. Many times, a predator will try to coerce a child into coming with them voluntarily without causing a scene by telling them they were sent by their parents to pick the child up. Agree to a simple “code word” like “Giraffe” or “Cheetos” that your child can remember and tell them to only trust an adult who knows the code word.
- Walking Away
Children should be taught to trust their instincts and walk away if a stranger approaches them. Though not all people are dangerous, it is always more important to be safe than being polite.
- Don’t put your child’s name on personal items
Children will tend to trust others who know their name. Never put your child’s name on personal items such as clothing or backpacks.
- Just scream
If approached, children should be taught to scream and run. Reassure your child the likelihood of being approached by a stranger is minimal but should it happen, to scream “This is not my dad” or “Fire” while running away.
The stakes are high when a child becomes the target of a predator. It really is a matter of life or death. According to the FBI, statistically when a child is abducted by a stranger, the likelihood of recovering them alive diminishes with each hour that passes.
When a predator has targeted its prey, survival depends upon fighting back. For example, if approached with a knife or gun and told to get in a car, statistically the child or teen have more of a chance surviving if they fight back at the initial crime scene. Survival rates drop when a child is transported to a second crime scene.
As children get older and spend more time away from parents, it is important to communicate openly with them. They need to know the dangers and reality of abduction without feeling fear which can be paralyzing.
- Not alone
Children should never answer the door when home alone or answer the phone and tell the caller their parent is not home.
- No compromises
Use the “Buddy System” and teens should always inform their parents where they are going and with who. No compromises.
- No shortcuts
Children should avoid shortcuts through empty parks, fields, and alleys. It is better to always remain in a well populated area to be safe.
- Life-saving technology
Use a GPS on their phone. There are free Apps such as Life 360. The App can be loaded on both the child’s phone and the parent’s phone and track location. Personally, my children are all grown with their own families now but my daughter and I both use Life 360 to keep tabs on each other. Though teens may demand their space, their safety trumps the right to privacy.
Remember, promote a home atmosphere that is open so kids can let you know what is going on in their lives. It is important to help them to have an understanding and confidence you want the best for them. Thomas Lauth has been in the private investigation industry for over 30 years, and in the cases of missing children, he stresses the importance of communication between parent and child, “We often get calls for missing children and teens. Once located and reunited with their families, we often educate parents or caregivers on tenets that would prevent this from occurring again. Regardless of circumstances, the most important thing is communication. Not only open and honest communication between parent and child, but communication safety concerning things like social media. In a world where young people are glued to their devices, it’s paramount that they remember to have awareness of their surroundings. Communicate, Educate, Communicate.”
Teaching children techniques to avoid an abduction
The window of opportunity to save oneself from danger might be seconds and children need to feel confident enough to make a split-second decision. In addition to coercion, abductors use intimidation. There are some techniques you can practice at home to build their self-confidence should they ever be face to face with a kidnapper.
- Practice yelling “Stop, Stranger” or “Fire” to draw attention and yell as loud as they can.
- Practice the Windmill technique which means rotating arms in a big circle so a potential attacker can’t get a good grip.
- Practice the Velcro technique by having your child grab and hold onto something, not letting go. They should also learn to scream while doing this.
If a child is abducted and somehow placed in a vehicle, they should know they need to take any opportunity they can to escape while trying to keep a cool head.
- Children should be taught not to be passive but proactive.
- Try to open the passenger side door quickly or jump in the back seat and try to escape through the rear doors.
- If placed in a trunk, they should be taught not to panic but to look for the “release” that opens the trunk upon pulling on it. Tear all the wires to the tail lights and brakes if possible.
I know this is a very serious and scary topic and just the thought of having to explain to an innocent child that some people are out to hurt them is incredibly uncomfortable, but when teaching others about fire safety, Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It applies throughout life.
Kym Pasqualini is the founder of the Nation’s Missing Children Organization and the National Center for Missing Adults and worked with law enforcement and families of missing persons for over 25 years. Kym continues to work with media nationwide to raise awareness of missing children and adults.
When we think of the missing, we commonly think of missing children. Daily we see the faces of children who are reported missing and their photographs shared among thousands on the Internet. How often do we think of missing senior citizens?
Courtesy Denver News 7 - Missing Senior Citizen
According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as of January 31, 2013, there were 85,081 cases of missing persons in the United States. Of that number, there were 35,427 missing children cases ages 0-17 and 49,654 cases of missing persons ages 18-99. Lost within these statistics of missing persons are 12,066 cases of adults missing between the ages of 50-99. There are currently 7,890 individuals that are Unidentified, to include those found deceased or possibly hospitalized without identification.
When older adults go missing and reported to law enforcement, the majority face health related risks, and many suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Keeping those suffering early stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can be a hard task. Like children, it only takes a minute before you realize they have wandered off.
When seniors go missing, it can quickly turn into a high-risk situation. They not only become vulnerable to become crime victims, they face quickly succumbing to the elements. During winter when temperatures can be below zero in some areas of the country, during summer temperatures can reach extreme highs. Becoming a victim of exposure can happen very quickly.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, we can take preventive measures to help keep our loved ones safe. First, we recommended to enroll your loved one MedicAlert and Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return programs.
1. Have a routine can provide structure when carrying out daily activities. Creating a Daily Plan can be very helpful. The Alzheimer’s Association offers online assistance by visiting Creating a Daily Plan.
2. Try to identify the times of day your loved one may have a tendency to become restless, agitated, or experience anxiety. Plan activities and exercise during these times.
3. Avoid busy places that could cause confusion and never leave your loved one unattended.
4. Place exterior door locks out of the line of sight. You can place side-bolts at the top or bottom of the door.
5. You can camouflage doors and doorknobs by painting them the same color as the walls, or use childproof knobs.
6. Install a security system that alerts you when a door or window is opened.
7. Keep car keys in a secure place.
8. Keep a list of people to call for help and do not hesitate to call 911 if you find your loved one has wandered.
9. Keep a recent close-up photograph and all medical information available.
10. Consider utilizing a GPS device that can quickly identify their location.
In addition, we recommend registering yourself and your loved one with Next of Kin Registry (NOKR). NOKR is the central repository for Emergency Contact Information in the United States and 87 other countries. NOKR has recently collaborated with Microsoft HealthVault and is a free service that stores emergency contact information and provides free decals to place on your driver license or identification card. Enrolling ensures the emergency contact information for anyone of any age that may become the victim of an accident, missing, a natural disaster, or other emergency incident, is available to law enforcement to aide in reunification. For more information, please visit Next of Kin Registry.
About the Author: Kym L. Pasqualini is founder of the Nation’s missing Children Organization in 1994 and the National Center for Missing Adults in 2000. She served as CEO until January 2010. Kym is recognized as an expert in the field of missing persons, and has spent 20 years working with government officials, advocates, and national media. She is also a contributor to Lauth Investigations International and the Missing Persons Advocacy Network.