Con Watch: The Terror of the Virtual Kidnapping Scam

Receiving a phone call about a kidnapped child can be very upsetting, but chances are it’s just a scheme to separate you from your money.

Teddy bear and a child's shoe in the middle of a street

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Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

In a scheme that ultimately resulted in her conviction and incarceration, Yanette Acosta would call parents, claiming that she had kidnapped their child and threatening them with violence if they reported the crime. The parents would often hear a distressed child’s voice in the background. She would then tell them to wire money or make cash drops in order to see their child alive again. In fact, Acosta was never anywhere near the child. The parents were victims of a kidnapping scam.

Phony kidnapping scams, also known as virtual kidnapping, have been going on for about twenty years. Their frequency has recently increased. In Laguna Beach, California, police are currently investigating two virtual kidnapping scams that occurred earlier this month. Police were able to thwart one of the scams before one family paid the ransom, but the other family was scammed out of $5,000.

According to FBI Assistant Director in Charge Paul Delacourt, “Virtual kidnapping schemes targeting American families are on the rise, and those perpetrating the crime have perfected their techniques. Victims of this terrifying scheme have experienced trauma, in addition to losing large sums of money.”

When the scam first began, the calls were largely in Spanish and targeted Spanish speaking people in California and Texas. However, around 2015, according to the FBI, they started expanding, and the calls started coming in English. The scam has expanded throughout the country with one FBI investigation identifying victims in California, Minnesota, Idaho, and Texas.

How It Works

The scam generally starts with a telephone call saying that a child or other relative has been kidnapped. If the family does not wire money right away, they threaten that relative will be killed. As with so many scams, we are often our own worst enemy, and this is no exception. In many instances, the criminals gather personal information about the intended victims from social media. The victim may indicate that they are traveling on vacation, making it easier to make the phony kidnapping appear legitimate. Armed with personal information, the “kidnapper” can provide personal information about the victim so it appears that they actually do have the person in their custody.

Sometimes the phony kidnappers manipulate Caller ID through a technique called “spoofing” to make it appear that the call is coming from a family member’s cell phone. However, the criminals may not bother to spoof the call. If the call does not originate with your family member’s phone, you can be pretty sure it is a scam.

Phony kidnappers will often request a ransom that seems low. (The average ransom demand in 2012 was $2 million.) Recently, WTHR in Indiana reported that Mark Walker received a phony kidnapping call demanding a $1,000 ransom for his kidnapped daughter. Walker, a private investigator, was immediately skeptical due to the low ransom amount. These small ransom demands are consistent with virtual kidnapping scams originating in Mexico, where there are legal restrictions on wiring larger amounts of money. While Walker continued to talk with the phony kidnapper, Walker’s wife called their daughter, who answered her cell phone and confirmed that she had not been kidnapped.

How to Protect Yourself

Although receiving a phone call about a kidnapping is very upsetting, try to be skeptical if you receive such a call.

If you do engage the caller, do not mention the name of your family member, and pay attention to see if they provide a name of the person they say they have kidnapped. Ask to speak to your family member.

Many of these kidnapping scams originate in Puerto Rico or Mexico, so be particularly skeptical if you receive a call originating from Puerto Rican area codes 787, 939 or 856. Also be wary of calls from Mexico which has many area codes. According to the FBI, many of the virtual kidnapping scams originating from Mexico are often being made by prisoners who have bribed guards to supply them with cell phones.

Never wire money to anyone for anything unless you are totally convinced that what you are doing is legitimate. Unlike paying for something with a credit card, once your wired funds have been sent, they are impossible to get back. Requests for money to be wired to an account in Mexico is a big indication that this is a scam.

Talk to the alleged kidnapper as long as possible, thereby giving someone else with you the time to call or text the alleged kidnap victim on their cellphone. If the purported kidnapping victim is a young child, call the school to confirm they are safe.

Ask the kidnapper to describe your relative, as well as provide information such as a birth date.It’s important to remember, however, that much of this kind of information may be available through social media or hacked accounts.

It also can be helpful for the family to have a code word to use to immediately recognize that this is a scam. If the kidnapper can’t provide the code word, it is clear that it is a scam.

If it were a real kidnapping, you would contact the FBI. However, for scam kidnappings, you should contact the Federal Trade Commission and the local police.

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