I have been warning you about phony kidnapping scams, also known as virtual kidnapping, for nine years and according to the FBI, the scam is increasing in frequency. Recently the Chicago Division of the FBI issued a new warning about how the scam has recently evolved. Generally, the scam starts with a telephone call informing the person answering the phone that a child or other relative has been kidnapped and if the person receiving the call does not respond by wiring money right away, the relative will be killed. As with so many scams, we are often our own worst enemy and this scam is no exception. In many instances, the scammers gather personal information about the intended scam victims from information that the intended victims or members of their families post on social media. Armed with personal information gathered from social media, a scammer can describe the supposed kidnapped victim or provide personal information that would make it appear that indeed they actually do have the person in their custody.
Sometimes the phony kidnappers manipulate your Caller ID through a technique called “spoofing” to make it appear that the call is coming from the supposedly kidnapped family member’s cell phone which is what happened recently to a family in Aurora, Colorado when Ryan Burcham answered a call that his Caller ID indicated was made from his wife’s phone. On the line was a virtual kidnapper who demanded a $900 ransom. In the background Burcham could hear a woman crying. Burcham was frantic and paid the ransom which fortunately, he was able to get back when he quickly called his wife after electronically paying the ransom. His wife who was safe the entire time knew nothing of the phony kidnapping.
In a new development in the scam, as reported by the FBI, scammers search social media posts looking for people travelling internationally and then contact that person’s family claiming he or she has been kidnapped and demand a promptly wired ransom payment. In many instances the scammers will pose as members of a drug cartel or a corrupt law enforcement officer. Sometimes they will even include realistic screams in the background of the calls although these screams, according to the FBI, are generally recordings.
Always be skeptical if you receive such a call. Never wire money to anyone for anything unless you are totally convinced that what you are doing is legitimate because unlike paying for something with a credit card, once your wired funds have been sent, they are impossible to get back. 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 his or her phone. If the purported kidnapping victim is a young child, call the school to confirm that he or she is safe. You also could ask the kidnapper to describe your relative as well as provide information, such as his or her birth date, which could be found on a driver’s license, however, it is important to remember that much of this kind of information may be available through social media or elsewhere on the Internet. 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.
As I often advise, be careful about what you post on social media and don’t post your travel plans on social media. Wait until you return to post any photos..
Finally, even paranoids have enemies. A good protective measure to take to protect yourself from virtual kidnappings is to have a secret password to use in the event of an emergency that can be used to determine if a family member truly is in trouble.
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