You answer a phone call. Your caller ID shows the phone number of your grandchild. An unfamiliar voice tells you they will kill your grandchild unless you send them money immediately. In the background, you hear muffled cries and screams. The caller instructs you to send payments via a mobile app that allows peer-to-peer (P2P) funds transfers, like Zelle or Venmo. This call is almost certainly a scam.
The FBI offers advice on how to handle a “virtual kidnapping” phone call. If you get a phone call in which someone demands money from you to ransom someone, they claim to have kidnapped, the FBI advises you to:
- Stay calm and under control. In the panic of the moment, you might blurt out personal information the caller can use to further the scam. Slow down the pace of the conversation.
- Insist upon speaking directly with the allegedly kidnapped person. If the caller hesitates, say you do not know if the person is okay, unless you talk to him or her.
- Request the victim call you back using his own cell phone.
- If you can get the kidnapped person on the phone, ask questions to which only he would know the answers. Make sure the responses are not details that someone could learn from your social media postings.
- If the caller refuses to let you speak with the alleged victim, ask the caller to tell you the kind of car the victim drives.
- While you engage the caller with these things, try to reach the alleged victim through social media or by calling or texting from another phone.
- If the caller tries to rush you, speak slowly and steadily. Say you need time to find paper and a pen and to write down the information.
- Do not argue with the caller, but do not automatically send the money. Do your best to locate the whereabouts of the allegedly kidnapped person. Nearly every time, the supposed kidnapping victim is safe and sound, blissfully unaware of the terrifying scam.
Scammers sometimes use Caller ID spoofing to make you think the phone call is from someone you know or a trusted number. Some brazen con artists even spoof the FBI’s phone number to call people and demand personal information or money. Although fake kidnapping scams have been around for 20 years or more, the FBI says these crimes are on the rise. Today’s cell phone and mobile banking technology make these cons easier to perpetrate.
If you fall victim to a “virtual kidnapping” scam, you should alert law enforcement immediately. Make sure they write a police report and give you a copy. You should also, notify your bank, mobile payment app, credit card company, or whatever entity you used to send the payment. Sometimes people can cancel the cash transfers or get at least some of their money back. The police report will back up your claim the money went to a scam. The more sophisticated the criminals get, the more on guard people need to be to avoid being victimized by fraudsters.
AARP. “’Virtual Kidnapping’ Terrorizes People Across the U.S.” (accessed December 5, 2019) https://www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/info-2019/virtual-kidnapping.html