FBI Chicago
Special Agent Siobhan Johnson
(312) 829-1199
March 4, 2022

FBI Chicago Warns Public About Virtual Kidnapping Scams

CHICAGO—Emmerson Buie, Jr., special agent-in-charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—Chicago Division, is warning the public about virtual kidnapping scams targeting families in Illinois and across the nation. Though virtual kidnapping scams have occurred for at least two decades, this scam has recently evolved to exploit new vulnerabilities.

The current abundance of affordable international travel deals combined with the widespread use of social media has created a fertile environment for virtual kidnapping scams. Virtual kidnappers scour the Internet for targets by searching for social media posts by international travelers. Scammers then contact the target’s loved ones claiming to have taken the target hostage. Family members are coerced into paying a ransom quickly to ensure the target’s release. In reality, the target was never in physical danger. By the time the family members realize they have been victimized, the ransom money is gone.

Virtual kidnappers can be very convincing, often representing themselves as members of drug cartels or corrupt law enforcement. Victims may hear screams in the background of a call, but virtual kidnappers have been known to use recordings to sound more realistic. Virtual kidnappers often request payment via wire transfer and push victims to act quickly.

FBI Chicago offers the following tips to help prevent virtual kidnapping scams:

  • Never post news of upcoming travel dates and locations online.
  • Discuss virtual kidnapping with family members prior to any travel.
  • Have a “password” that family members can ask for in an emergency to confirm that a loved one is really in trouble.
  • Be wary of providing financial information to strangers over the phone.

Hallmarks of a virtual kidnapping include:

  • The calls may not come from the kidnapped target’s phone.
  • Callers go to great lengths to keep victims on the phone.
  • Callers are usually unable to answer simple questions about targets such as what they look like.
  • Ransom money is only accepted via a wire transfer service.
  • Callers request that the ransom funds be wired to multiple people in several small amounts.

FBI Chicago asks anyone who believes they are being targeted by a virtual kidnapping scam to call 911 immediately and ask that the FBI be notified.