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Cropped shot of an unidentifiable hacker using a laptop

Source: boonchai wedmakawand / Getty@qaqaz

The FBI says that virtual kidnapping scams have been around for at least 20 years.  However,  scammers have evolved to the extent that law enforcement says “US residents are now more vulnerable than ever.” FBI officials, of the Los Angeles Division, said that between 2013 and 2015, the majority of virtual kidnapping calls originated from Mexican prisons and the targets were individuals, who spoke Spanish, and who lived in the Los Angeles and Houston areas. FBI Special Agent Erik Arbuthnot said that in 2015, the calls started coming from individuals speaking English.  The targets were no longer doctors or Spanish speaking individuals but the con artists were casting a wider net.  Arbuthnot said the targeted individuals are now from various cities and that hundreds of cold-calling calls are made until victims fall for the scam.

Here’s how it typically works:

  • Scammers search the internet for social media posts by international travelers or for travelers during popular seasons like spring break, Thanksgiving, Christmas
  • Scammers then contact the family members of the travelers and claim to have taken the individuals as hostages (sometimes a person pretending to be the victim screams in the background)
  • Scammers then pressure the family members to pay the ransom quickly

Once the family members realize that they are victims of a fraud scheme, the ransom money is gone. It’s a crime that is resulting in millions of dollars for con artists.  The FBI suggests potential victims do the following if contacted by a virtual kidnapper:

  • hang up or if you choose to stay on the call, do not mention your family member’s name
  • control the phone conversation by slowing down the pace
  • ask questions that only the kidnap victim would know and ask to speak to that person
  • try to contact the kidnap victim
  • don’t pay the ransom

Always contact law enforcement if you believe that you are the victim of a crime.