FBI Phoenix
Brooke Brennan and Kevin Smith
(623) 466-1999
December 9, 2020

FBI Warns Public of ‘Virtual Kidnapping’ Extortion Calls

PHOENIX, AZ—The Federal Bureau of Investigation Phoenix Division wants to warn the public about “virtual kidnapping” extortion calls happening in Arizona.

FBI Phoenix has recently received reports where victims are getting calls from criminals claiming to have kidnapped their loved ones and threatening to harm them unless a ransom is paid. Sometimes a female can be heard crying or screaming in the background of the call. No one is physically kidnapped in these extortion schemes, but they are often traumatic for everyone involved. Many of the calls originate in Mexico.

Law enforcement agencies have been warning the public of virtual kidnapping schemes for some time. Although virtual kidnapping takes on many forms, it is always an extortion scheme—one that often tricks victims over the phone into paying a ransom to free a loved one they believe is being threatened with violence or death when in fact the virtual kidnappers have not actually kidnapped anyone. Instead, through deceptions and threats, they coerce victims to pay a quick ransom before the scheme falls apart. On average, families send thousands of dollars to the scammers before contacting law enforcement.

The FBI believes most virtual kidnappings for ransom remain unreported. We hope to raise awareness about this most recent scheme and equip individuals with the knowledge they need to avoid becoming a victim of this crime. Although the FBI does not keep national statistics of virtual kidnapping for ransom, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) in 2019, extortion scams had the third highest victim count in the U.S., behind phishing scams, and non-payment/non-delivery scams. Arizona had 1,092 victims of extortion in 2019.

If you get this type of call, whether you think it’s an extortion scheme or a legitimate kidnapping, contact law enforcement immediately.

To avoid becoming a victim of this extortion scheme, look for the following possible indicators:

  • Calls are usually made from an outside area code
  • May involve multiple phone calls
  • Calls do not come from the kidnapped victim’s phone
  • Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone
  • Callers prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim
  • Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer service

If you receive a phone call from someone who demands payment of a ransom for a kidnapped victim, the following should be considered:

  • Stay Calm
  • Slow the situation down
  • Avoid sharing information about you or your family during the call.
  • Request to speak to the victim directly; ask for “proof of life.”
  • Listen carefully to the voice of the kidnapped victim and ask questions only the victim would know.
  • Request the kidnapped victim call back from his/her cell phone.
  • Attempt to text or contact the victim via social media.
  • Attempt to physically locate the victim.
  • Don’t agree to pay a ransom, by wire or in person. Delivering money in person can be dangerous.

FBI Phoenix is committed to working with our state and local law enforcement officers to increase public awareness regarding the threat posed by virtual kidnappings and will continue to investigate and refer these types of cases for prosecution.

For more information on virtual kidnapping for ransom schemes, read here: https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/virtual-kidnapping.